Despite terror, Aleppo's Christians have hope, desire to rebuild

Refugee crisis Credit Mikael Damkier via wwwshutterstockcom CNA Mikael Damkier via Shutterstock.

Despite the destruction caused by nearly six years of conflict between rebels and pro-government forces, the people in Aleppo, especially the Christians, are filled with vitality, hope, and a desire to rebuild, to return to a normal life, a Vatican official said after a recent visit to the city.

On behalf of Pope Francis, Mons. Giovanni Pietro Dal Toso, secretary of the new Vatican department for Promoting Integral Human Development, lead a delegation of the Holy See on a visit to the Syrian city of Aleppo Jan. 18-23.

"My impression of the Christian communities was that the people are alive, desiring to have a normal life," he told CNA, and to "begin again, with several initiatives in order to go back to normality."

The trip had special significance as it marked the Holy See's first official visit to Aleppo since the end of the city's six-year conflict Dec. 22.

"The meaning of this visit was especially to give a sign of the attention of the universal Church to our Christian communities in Aleppo," he said, "but I would say too, for the whole population in Aleppo, because everybody still suffers because of this dramatic situation they had to live through."

Lead by Mons. Dal Toso, the delegation also included Neo-Cardinal Mario Zenari, Apostolic Nuncio to Syria, and Thomas Habib, Director of the Apostolic Nunciature.

Mons. Dal Toso said that the situation he found in Aleppo was incredibly difficult: they have a shortage of many things, like food, water, medicine and electricity. They are also dealing with high prices due to a high rate of inflation.

"But at the same time," he emphasized, "I found also the desire, the will, to commence again, to begin again a normal life," he said.

During the visit, the delegation oversaw the development of several projects, including the opening of a Caritas center in eastern Aleppo, which distributes clothes and food, because "the people really have nothing more," he said.

They also have a project focused specifically on helping refugees, as well as several which distribute medicine.

Another important focus of the Catholic Church in Aleppo is education and helping the schools to continue – an important priority, Mons. Dal Tosos said. There are a lot of children in Aleppo, "but many of them are not going to school…"

"There is a need for preparing professionals for the future. We hope that the war will be ended…in a short time. This is a hope of mine and I think of everyone, but we have also to think of reconstruction, of people who can help us in the reconstruction."

In addition to the humanitarian aid, they are also working to provide pastoral care for Christian families in the area specifically. "This is an aspect we cannot forget as a Church, people need also to be accompanied in the faith in this difficult situation they have to live in," he said.

Although they place an added emphasis on support for Christians, the religious minority, the aid they supply is distributed regardless of religion. Everything is done for people "without consideration of their belief, of their creed," he emphasized.

"Normally, in our work, we do not distinguish between different Christian confessions or if someone comes from another religion, we are helping everybody. We are trying, through the simple fact that we are open to everybody…to foster this social issue. To help people to live together."

"This is a big contribution that the Catholic Church can give," he continued. "Not just in kindness, but exactly in this period of cooperation and of cohabitation, regardless of religion, of culture, or of ethnic belonging."

Asked if he found there to be any one or two needs that are most urgent, Mons. Dal Toso said that it is "difficult to determine if there is one priority," the needs are so immense, though building up houses is one, since many were destroyed by bombs.

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Another is food, of course, "because people are really living in poverty." Healthcare is also an urgent need: We "continue our work with our Catholic hospitals," he said, "supporting people who are sick." Education also tops the list.

"So I would say that the needs are really many, and we cannot answer to every need that we find, but at least we can try to do our best."

"And I have the impression, this I have to say, that the engagement of the Catholic communities and of the Catholic Church through the different agencies, and so on, is a very big effort in order to help the Syrian population," he said.

The visit of the Holy See's delegation also included a meeting with the civil authorities, who gave their greeting to the Pope and expressed their gratitude for the gesture of Pope Francis in giving the Nuncio the dignity of a cardinal.

The role of the civil authority in Syria at this moment, Mons. Dal Toso said, is to "foster the process of peace" as much as possible, and make it easy for the organizations working there to carry out their work, which he said, in his experience, has thankfully not been an issue so far.

Reflecting on the visit, Mons. Dal Toso said it was very important to him "to see the people concretely, to see the faces."

"It is important that you can see the people for whom you are working."

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Overall, the most important message he received was to see the hope of the people, he said. "To see that they, even in these difficulties that they have, the sufferings they have, that they are willing to build up a new future, and that this message of hope is a message everybody needs."

"I have always said it is not just what we as the universal Church can give to Aleppo, but what these communities can give us. And these communities give us a big testimony of strong faith, even in the midst of suffering," he said.

"And also a testimony of hope, that even if this situation is a bad situation, even if the situation seems to be without perspectives, that there is, from a Christian point of view, always a perspective, always a hope. There is always a way out. And I am very grateful for this testimony."

Elise Harris contributed to this article. 

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