A modern-day St Francis? Archbishop works to rebuild Syrian Church amid destruction

Interior of a damaged church building in Aleppo, April 2015. Credit: Melkite Archdiocese of Aleppo. Courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need.
Interior of a damaged church building in Aleppo, April 2015. Credit: Melkite Archdiocese of Aleppo. Courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need.

.- A four-year civil war in Syria has left a mounting death toll and displaced millions of persons, but one bishop is staying to rebuild the Church in Aleppo, in the northwest corner of the country.

“The Church is living,” Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo told CNA earlier this month. “Here, I am building, I am restoring, I am maintaining a lively Church in which every stone is a human being and who can be a witness, a testimony to the world.”

“I wondered if I am not copying St. Francis when he was working to rebuild the Church. It was crazy, nobody thought that he would succeed,” the archbishop noted. “And he succeeded because the Lord was with him.”

The four-year Syrian conflict being fought among the Assad regime and various rebel factions has devastated the country. More than 3.9 million refugees have fled to surrounding countries, and around 8 million Syrians are believed to have been internally displaced. The war’s death toll is currently around 220,000.

Outside countries and entities have taken advantage of the civil war, profiting from it through the arms trade or waiting for Syria to collapse so to move in and take power in the vacuum. Pope Francis has spoken out against the arms trade here and has been criticized for it, Archbishop Jeanbart noted.

Aleppo endured a terrible two-month siege by rebel forces last year. Its infrastructure has been devastated, and its residents endure great poverty.

Those who chose to stay face a myriad of challenges. Houses, businesses, schools, and hospitals have been damaged or destroyed in the war, leaving fathers without work, families without shelter, the sick without medical care, and children without education.

Thus it is an uphill battle to convince residents to stay and not re-settle elsewhere, Archbishop Jeanbart admitted. Syrians see the U.S. on television and think it a “paradise,” and want to move there. He has to convince them of the unseen difficulties that such a move might bring.

Words are not enough to convince people, however. The Church must act to help Christians who stay so once peace comes – and it will, the archbishop maintains – a stable Christian community is in place and Christians can have a seat at the peace negotiations.

“We want that we may have our rights,” he said. “We want that everybody may feel comfortable in the country.”

“What we want to do, and what I am looking for,” Archbishop Jeanbart said, “is to go to another position, a position looking positively to the future, trying to give them hope that the future of their country may be good, and will be better if they work and if they prepare themselves.”

The Church in Aleppo is working to meet the local needs. It provides thousands of baskets of food to needy families, 1,000 scholarships for students to attend Catholic schools, stipends to almost 500 fathers who have lost their business in the war, heating to houses in the wintertime, rebuilding homes damaged in the war and medical care for the needy since many government hospitals were destroyed in the fighting.

It’s a daunting task for an archbishop in his seventies. He admitted to initially wondering how he could do it.

“But when I began working on it, I felt that I was 50. Like if the Lord is pushing me to go ahead and helping me to realize this mission,” he said.

“I invest myself entirely. I have decided the consecrate the rest of my life to do that.”

Archbishop Jeanbart has been assisted in his efforts to serve the people of Aleppo by the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. The charity has ensured  a six month supply of medical goods for the city, and paid for repairs and fuel costs at the city's schools, in addition to the rest of its work throughout Syria.

Archbishop Jeanbart maintained that another reason Christians need to stay in Syria is to be a light to people of other religions, especially Muslims. If the Christians leave, no one will be left to preach the Gospel in Syria.

“Perhaps the time has come to tell these people ‘Come, Christ is waiting for you.’ And many Muslims now, I must say, are wondering where should be their place? Are they in the right place? Are they perhaps supposed to rethink and review their choices? It will be wonderful if I told them we may have the freedom and the freedom of faith which would allow anyone to make his own choice freely.”

Critics of the Church in Syria have accused it of not immediately supporting the rebels in the name of freedom and democracy, the archbishop noted, and this is a false mischaracterization.

Christians are wary of regime change because they have seen what has happened in surrounding countries where fundamentalists took power in the Arab Spring and religious pluralism suffered as a result: there is “a feeling among Christians that they are afraid that the government may change and with the change of the government, they may lose their freedom … they are afraid to lose their freedom to express and to live their Christian life.”

He cited the success of the Islamic State, which in the power vacuum caused by the Syrian civil war has established a caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq where “many Christians were killed because they were Christian.”

Christians in Syria are, in fact, supportive of freedom and democracy, he said.

“They want to have a democratic regime where they may have all their freedom and where they may live tranquil but at the same time happy in the country,” he said.

“In any settlement,” he maintained, “the Christian must have the rights to be Christian in this country. And they should not become Muslims because the regime will be Muslim.”

“We want to have our rights and to live as free Christians in our country,” he said.

Tags: Syrian Civil War, Aid to the Church in Need, Aleppo, Melkite Archdiocese of Aleppo, Archbishop Jeanbart