Over 1000 Holy Masses have been celebrated by Catholic communities in the Middle East in order to thank Pope Francis for his participation in the Advent initiative Candles for Peace in Syria, which was organised by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). On the first Sunday of Advent last year, during the Angelus prayer at the window of the Apostolic Palace, Pope Francis lit a candle and prayed that “this flame of hope and many little flames might scatter the shadows of war”.
Sister Annie Demerjian handed the candle to Pope Francis that he lit during Angelus for Peace in Syria along with 50 thousand Syrian kids.
Now scores of parishes in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and even on the Arabian Peninsula have expressed their gratitude to Pope Francis for his gesture by celebrating Holy Masses for his intentions. And many Orthodox Christians in the Middle East have also associated themselves with this expression of thanksgiving and prayed for the intentions of Pope Francis.
Also participating in the Candles for Peace in Syria campaign, were over 50,000 children of different religious faiths and denominations in many of the major war-torn cities of Syria, such as Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Marmarita, al-Hasaka, Tartus and Latakia. And thousands of people worldwide also associated themselves with the campaign and expressed their solidarity and concern for the people of Syria.
On 1 January 2019, the World Day of Prayer for Peace, at the initiative of Melkite Catholic Archbishop Issam John Darwich of Zahleh and Forzol, hundreds of parishes in Lebanon also associated themselves with the campaign, lighting candles at their New Year‘s Day Liturgies and praying for peace in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
More than 200 churches and parish buildings have been damaged or destroyed in Syria. The revival of Church life is one way of reassuring the faithful and of encouraging them to rebuild their lives. “As the shepherd of the Syriac Orthodox Community in Homs it was very painful to see the destruction of our church,” says the Archbishop Selvanos Boutros Al-Nemeh. #HelpSyria
In the region of Marmarita the local Catholic Church is working together with the international Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) to support the refugee families and help them return to their homes
Ghassan Abboud and his wife Maha Sanna used to live in Homs with their two sons, Joseph and Michael. But exactly five years and seven months ago their lives changed completely, on a day that will be forever burnt in their memories. “We were at home”, Maha recalls. “My son Michael was standing quietly in the sitting room, when we suddenly heard the sound of breaking glass. When we went to see what had happened, we found Michael lying prostrate on the ground. A stray bullet had gone through the window and straight through his head. He died instantly.”
The civil war in Syria had erupted in the city of Homs just a few months earlier, and the initial outbreaks of urban warfare had unleashed bloody bombings and sniper attacks throughout the city. The street protests calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al Assad had prompted a hardline response and fierce political repression. Everything dissolved into a civil war which led to a division within the army and within society and to the appearance of numerous armed groups of a jihadist stamp. As of today, the death toll stands at around 500,000 people, and one of these victims was the youngest son of the Abboud family.
Hassan Abboud with his wife Maha Sanna and son Josef Abboud.
“Michael was a wonderful boy. He worked as a TV film producer and dreamt of becoming a film director one day”, his mother explains, sadly, yet with a tinge of pride. Following his death, and due to the outbreak of still worse fighting within the city, the family decided to leave. “We were planning to leave the country, but we were refused a visa. We didn’t have much money and so we gave up on the attempt. Instead, we came here to the Valley of the Christians”, Ghassan explains.
All these years the Abboud family have lived in a small rented house in the village of Almishtaya, one of the 20 or more villages that make up this region, which was known before the war as a local holiday destination for the people of Homs. Many of them used to come here from the city to enjoy the peace of its valleys and mountains. Maha explains that their economic situation was not good enough to be able to afford a rented home in another town where there was no fighting, but at the same time they couldn’t go on living in Homs, surrounded by so much violence. “Ever since we arrived here, we have been supported by the priests and the young people of the Saint Peter’s Centre in Marmarita”, she tells us. “Without their help to pay for this house, for food and the medication I need for my heart, I don’t know where we would be today.”
Her husband and her other son Joseph both lost their jobs when they left Homs. In the Valley of the Christians they managed to find work for a few months, but the economic situation of the country and the saturation of the refugees has caused the work to dry up, and the wages are in any case very poor. “I am self-employed”, Ghassan explains. “But now I’ve stopped working. I am over 60 now, but I don’t get any pension.” His son Joseph does have work, as an electrician, “but the employment situation here is very unstable. I would like to return to Homs and earn my living there”, he tells us.
The Abboud family is one of over 2000 families who are receiving monthly subsistence aid distributed by the local Church, thanks to the financial support of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
Many of these families have recently expressed their intention to return to their former homes as soon as possible, and as soon as they can be rebuilt. “I am almost certain that we will be able to return soon”, Ghassan tells us. “We were able to return to Homs and see the state of our house. Although it is partially damaged, it is not that bad. But nevertheless it is still difficult to live in Homs, with all the ruin caused by the catastrophe and the many shortages of electricity and water, but nevertheless it’s always better to be in your own home rather than living here as refugees. Besides, having to pay rent is also very costly”, he acknowledges.
With this hopeful message about their return, Ghassan, Maha and Joseph say goodbye to the small visiting group from ACN who have travelled to Syria to learn about the situation of the refugee families and their needs. “What gives us hope is the support we receive from Iliash, the young man in charge of coordinating the aid at the Saint Peter’s Centre. The priests and the Catholic Church are supporting us in every way. Theirs is the only help we receive; it is a testimony to their generosity, and it is all the more precious to us, given that we are not Catholics, but Orthodox Christians”, Maha explains.
“My faith is what gives me the strength to continue, despite so much suffering. You tell us that many people in Europe and other countries feel strengthened in their faith when they hear about our story and our perseverance in the face of our difficulties. I can only say ‘Alhamdulillah’ (God be praised! in Arabic)”, Ghassan remarks. And as they lean over the balcony of their home and wave goodbye, they warmly add: “Shukran ktir ktir (Many, many thanks!)”
The Catholic faithful in the parish of Nayanagar are delighted with their new church and parish centre which – thanks to the generous help of our benefactors – has now at last been completed. It is something the Catholics here have dreamt of for years, and also organised collections for, despite their great poverty. It was not much, of course, but it was like the „widows mite“, as their parish priest writes. With the help of our benefactors we were able to give a total of 80,000 Euros and so finally enable them to realise their dream.
Sunday Mass sees anywhere between 3000 and 3500 people attending, and on the major high days and holy days such as Christmas and Easter there are many more than this. But even the weekday Masses are always well attended. And at weekends there are religious instruction courses and likewise a range of different children‘s and youth groups.
A church and community centre for the parish of Nayanagar in Bangladesh
The parish continues to grow and grow, as more and more people move to the regional capital from the surrounding rural areas in the hope of finding a better future. The priests of the religious congregation the Oblates of the Immaculate Virgin Mary not only provide pastoral support for the faithful, but also help the new rural migrants to find their feet in the city, ensuring that their children can attend school, providing medical care and helping and supporting them in all their many difficulties and necessities. Around 80% of the Catholic faithful in the parish are rural migrants of this kind. And although in Bangladesh as a whole Catholics represent only a tiny minority in a population that is 90% Muslim, there are in fact very many Christians, above all among the ethnic minorities. And it is from this section of the population that most of the new vocations come.
A church and community centre for the parish of Nayanagar in Bangladesh
Father Ajit Victor Costa, the provincial delegate of the Oblate Fathers, has written to ACN on behalf of his confreres and of the Catholic faithful generally. „We sincerely appreciate the value of your love, your friendship and your warmhearted kindness. Your prayers, sacrifices and financial support have been an enormous help to us in fulfilling our dream. Through you and together with you we have been deeply touched by the presence of the loving hands of God and your own wonderful generosity. We pray for all your benefactors and for all who have contributed.“
Altogether ACN has contributed 80,000 Euros towards the cost of the buildings.
“The war is not losing steam and after eight years there are scars that will never be erased” – says Father Halemba, the head of projects for the Middle East for Aid to the Church in Need with concern. Every military conflict is a catalyst to suffering for war torn countries, particularly areas where there are many children. Syria has no exception. The effects of these experiences are far beyond human capacity to deal with; this is the reason why ACN is determined to help those who suffer spiritually and mentally. The Good Samaritan workshops for post war trauma healing for Syrians is one of the initiatives supported by ACN. The courses are held at the Carmelite Sanctuary of the Holy Infant in Jounieh in Lebanon. “Time does not heal trauma – adds Fr. Halemba – this is why a person must be helped to express suffering and to confront bad memories. If we don’t help Syrian families and communities to recover, who will do it?”
“The suffering of war is not extinguishing”, states Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East Section of the Catholic Charity and Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), “instead, its effects are growing like a tumour, the figures speak for themselves. According to the UN more than 13 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance, half of whom are children. They are the most at risk as they face escalating threats of being permanently maimed by fighting, or emotionally scarred by all possible abuses including rape, forced marriages, slavery work, food scarcity and minimal access to health or education”.
The Good Samaritan workshops for post war trauma healing for Syrians is one of the initiatives supported by ACN.
According to his report after a recent trip to the country, “economic sanctions only worsen the situation, and in contrary to the declared objective, these sanctions punish civil society by limiting humanitarian activity in the war-torn country, where 6.6 million people have been internally displaced, and nearly 3 million are in hard-to-reach and besieged areas”.
Local Churches, thanks to international support, are playing a vital role in providing comprehensive relief services. “Christians in Syria are so humbly attempting to live at peace with their past. But many are spiritually and psychologically distressed and in desperate need to be supported,” says the polish priest. “Long-term exposure to war and post-war stress cause serious psychological consequences, it is universally true that horrific experiences are so deeply disturbing that they might even be overwhelming, especially for children. The trauma caused by the war implies dramatic behavioural changes leading to relationship problems, violence and other mental disorders. After all, a serious upsurge of post-conflict trauma was to be expected and this is what I hear about and witness when travelling to Syria.” PTSD is only one of the disorders in the wide spectrum of post-traumatic reactions.
The Good Samaritan workshops for post war trauma healing for Syrians is one of the initiatives supported by ACN.
“Time does not heal trauma,” insists Fr. Halemba. “This is why a person must be helped to express suffering and to confront bad memories. If we don’t help them who will do it?” reflects the priest and continues: “For this reason Aid to the Church in Need initiates this new project to support and guide towards healing people with psychological suffering especially the children. Due to the short supply and skyrocketing prices of medical services most people in Syria are unable to undergo any treatment at all.
The Good Samaritan course for trauma healing is carried out in cooperation with local Church partners and laity from other countries. This will not be one event, but a steadfast program, comprising weekly follow-up meetings combined with individual assistance and reinforced with refreshment sessions. The first session takes place 8-23 October 2018 in the Carmelite Sanctuary of Infant Jesus in Jounieh, in Lebanon, held especially for the clergy and laity, who will run the project in Syria afterwards.
A recent report by Unicef revealed that 2017 was the worst year of the war for young Syrians, with 910 killed. According to this report most children had experienced shelling nearby, they are traumatized by sorrow, extreme nightmares, and daily flashbacks of the horrific events, fear, insecurity and bitterness. Around 50 per cent had been shot at by snipers, and 66 per cent had been in a situation where they thought they would die. Almost one child in four has been wounded in the conflict. The number of orphans has greatly increased. The “lost generation” of those, are below 15 years of age, and have never been to school and are illiterate. Many of them are in a state of depression and attempt suicide. Child deaths soared by 50% last year and the number of young soldiers tripling since 2015.
Father Halemba stresses, ACN will do its best to encourage projects, which offer to the children and youth of Syria, an opportunity for hope, both literally and mentally and through sponsorship of: spiritual summer camps, family retreat, summer clubs programs, regional youth days etc. “For many of them it is for the first time in their life they have ever attended such youth events”.
The “Good Samaritan course for trauma healing project” is another initiative of the Catholic Charity and Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) supports the local Churches in assisting those suffering in Syria. In addition to the therapeutic effect, ACN hopes that the study on trauma exposure and post-traumatic stress disorder will be indicative to further strategy and to break ground for humanitarian organisations specialised in this field.
It has been 8 long years since the beginning of the war in Syria, ACN benefactors have so kindly supported our poor and persecuted brothers and sisters with more than 28 million dollars.
The “Good Samaritan course for trauma healing project” is another initiative of the Catholic Charity and Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) supports the local Churches in assisting those suffering in Syria.
The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is sponsoring 32 new projects in Syria, at a total cost of 1.8 million Euros, for the restoration of the material and spiritual life of the Christian population there.
- Children, women and the sick will be among the first to benefit from the aid programmes
- Among the seven reconstruction projects for the physical infrastructure of Aleppo, one of the cities most damaged during the war, there are three cathedrals
The pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is embarking on a programme of reconstruction and restoration in Aleppo, one of the cities that suffered most from the consequences of the war. Among the seven projects for the physical reconstruction of the city there are three involving Catholic cathedrals, namely the Armenian, Maronite and Syrian Catholic cathedrals. These three cathedrals not only represent the riches of the Eastern Rites in Aleppo, but are at the same time a symbol of the Christian roots of the city.
Armenian Catholic Cathedral in the Al-Telal district of Aleppo.
“The churches are like lighthouses in the ocean; they are a source of security and hope, and are but one of the first steps towards encouraging the return of the uprooted Christians here – as ACN well knows, having been so involved in the reconstruction of the towns and villages destroyed by IS in Iraq”, emphasises Father Andrzej Halemba, who heads the project section responsible for Syria at the international headquarters of the foundation. Last year ACN also sponsored the reconstruction of the Melkite Catholic Cathedral in Homs.
In addition to supporting two parish community centres and a biblical study centre, ACN has promised help to complete the renovation work on a centre for autistic children which has been run by Franciscan missionary sisters for the past 21 years. The building is very damp due to the breakdown of the heating system during the war, and poses a real danger to the health of the 15 children cared for daily there.
Repair of the “La Source” Center for autistic children, Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Mary in Aleppo
All this is being done on top of the ongoing aid programmes for the hundreds of displaced families that ACN has been supporting from the very beginning of the conflict in 2011 in Aleppo and in other cities such as Homs and Latakia. “Although we would like these families to be able to return to their homes and be able to begin a new life, there is still a good deal to be done in order to make this possible. And meanwhile we cannot cut off our aid, since the local churches cannot take on this burden. According to UNHCR some 13.1 million people in Syria are in need of humanitarian assistance today. “Those who are suffering most are the poorest”, Father Halemba explains. That is why ACN will be spending two thirds of the 1.8 million Euros allocated on renewed emergency aid packages. These will include among other things paying the rent for 340 families in Homs, providing medical assistance for around 700 people in Aleppo and a monthly allowance for food and healthcare over the next six months for 1,725 of the poorest families in Latakia.
Along with these 32 projects recently approved, the number of projects that the international foundation ACN is carrying out in Syria in 2018 now totals 121 valued at almost 7 million euros.
“The suffering is not over yet!”, Father Halemba insists. “We face massive challenges simply in easing the terrible wounds inflicted over the past eight years, and at the same time we cannot forget that the future of these people lies in our hands and that we have a responsibility towards them.”