How the feast will be celebrated by local Christians and refugee families in Marmarita and Homs

Syria is a country still living today with suffering and death. Even though the war that has been the scourge of the country since 2011 has almost ceased to be headline news on the major world media, the people of the country are still having to contend with the destruction, lack of food and medicines and continuing humanitarian crisis.

Many families are still living with the harsh reality of having no home of their own to live in, just like the Holy Family in Bethlehem, where there was no room at the inn and they were forced to spend the night in a stable. In the small town of Marmarita, in the region of Syria known as the Valley of the Christians, there are still thousands of refugees from the war, people like the married couple Elias Ghattas and Lina Salloum, for whom Christmas is no longer the same as it was before. “There is no longer the same happiness and joy, and still less in families like our own, which are traumatised by the loss of our near and dear ones. We have a son who was called up in the army, and the biggest present for us would be for him to return home and not have to go away again any more.”

 

Streets of Homs. Christmas tree in Christian neighbourhood.

Streets of Homs. Christmas tree in Christian neighbourhood.

Majd Jallhoum is a young volunteer in the Saint Peter’s Centre, run by the Melkite Catholic Church in Marmarita, and she helps people like Elias and Lina. She recalls the first few Christmases after the outbreak of the war, when “It was impossible for us to celebrate at all. The idea of feasting together, toasting one another, decorating the home, while people around us were dying… It was just too painful for us.”

Majd herself has been a refugee here for the past seven years. “We came here from Damascus, having fled there from Homs initially. Then we had to flee again from there on account of the fighting all around the capital, and so we came to the Valley of the Christians.” Her story mirrors that of so many other refugees, who had to pack up and move more than once in order to seek refuge and escape the fighting.

“When we arrived here in the Valley of the Christians, we could see that people were still celebrating Christmas with enthusiasm, decorating the streets with lights and putting up Christmas trees on the village squares. And so, together with my family, I went back to celebrating the Nativity of Jesus”, she continues. “It’s still not the same as the way we used to celebrate in Homs, where it was much more joyful, and where we had a great big Christmas tree in the central square in Old Homs and celebrated with fireworks. It was so pretty, all decorated with lights.”

Father Walid Iskandafy, the parish priest of Saint Peter’s Church in Marmarita and also the director of the Saint Peter’s Centre which helps the refugee families, describes the joyful anticipation among the refugees. “Some of them, who have been unable to celebrate the feast for years, are now being infected by the joy of those around them. All year round they are looking forward to these days.”

According to him, they celebrate Christmas in a similar way to other parts of Syria and the Middle East. “They put up the Christmas crib and Christmas tree in their homes, and the families all try to gather together to celebrate these days – parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents. They all go together to Midnight Mass and Christmas Day Mass, and they wish each other a happy Christmas, and also their friends and neighbours. They visit each other’s houses and share the typical Christmas sweets and pastries.”

Not far from Marmarita, about an hour’s drive away after passing through a number of military checkpoints, is the city of Homs. Here the Christian community is concentrated in the historic quarter known as Old Homs. This area was extensively damaged by the fighting, which raged with particular intensity from 2012 to 2014. But now, amid the rubble from the bombings, the homes and churches are little by little being repaired and rebuilt.

The Houdaib family is one of those who will once again be celebrating Christmas in their own recently rebuilt home, thanks to help from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). “We’re going to celebrate Christmas with great joy in our own home at last”, says Evon Hajjar, mother and grandmother to the family. “We won’t be able to put up a Christmas tree, however, because they are extremely expensive and prices have gone through the roof, owing to the grave economic crisis we’re living through”, explains Marwan, her son. “But for us it’s a wonderful gift just to be able to be together in our own home.”

 

Houdaib Family in their just rebuilt house in Homs.

Houdaib Family in their just rebuilt house in Homs.

 

The Houdaib family will be attending Midnight Mass in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, which has also been rebuilt and inaugurated with the support of ACN. In the cathedral, Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Abdo Arbach extends his Christmas greetings to us: “We wish for peace in Syria and in all your countries. I pray to God for peace throughout the world, and for the war to end here. I wish that all men would love one another, because if we love one another, there will be peace. Happy Christmas and a happy New Year!”

The Christians of Syria have suffered a great deal in the war. As a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim country they have been and continue to be an easy target and a scapegoat for jihadist groups such as so-called Islamic State/Daesh and Al Qaeda. According to information from the local Church, the Christians in Syria have fallen in number from some 2.5 million to around 700,000 in the last few years.

 

 

In the midst of this daily struggle for survival, they are celebrating Christmas. Here, where there is no place for the usual consumerist frenzy, the lights of the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib have once more become a sign of genuine salvation. Christ is born and lives in the midst of his people, suffering with them and bringing hope to a world that longs for his saving message: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of goodwill.”

Guamà is a municipality in the southern Cuban province of Santiago de Cuba, and Guamà II is a suburb within the municipality. For some 18 years now a team of lay missionaries have been travelling, Sunday after Sunday, into the remote villages of this Guamà II pastoral district to bring the Gospel message of Christ to the people. Sitting in the back of a borrowed truck, they travel for hours on end in all weathers, sometimes up to 150 km (95 miles) on bumpy and dangerous coastal roads, overhung by rocky outcrops. There is no question of comfort, and they even bring their own food and bedding, since the people they are visiting are extremely poor.

 

Success Story: help for a popular mission in Guamà II, in southern Cuba

Success Story: help for a popular mission in Guamà II, in southern Cuba

 

This selfless commitment by these lay missionaries is a response to the acute shortage of priests in the region. Fundamentalist sects are spreading further and further and trying to woo away the Catholics from their faith. If the Church cannot be visibly present, it is often too late. And yet the people are very open to religious faith. Sister María Asunción Domínguez Castañeda, who belongs to the congregation on the Catechetical Sisters of Dolores Sopeña, and who runs the programme, writes: „The people are thirsting for God, and this is our way of coming to them as Church. Many people who have had never had any contact with the Church are now asking to receive the sacraments.“ A priest also accompanies these lay missionaries as often as possible, administering the sacraments to those who seek them.

The sisters‘ work includes training these lay missionaries in one-week intensive courses and additional monthly courses. Once they have completed their training, the missionaries act as community leaders, conducting Liturgies of the Word, helping distribute Holy Communion and giving catechetical instruction. They include people of all ages, and even several young people. „The Catholic faithful in the communities really appreciate the involvement of these young people“, Sister Maria Asunciòn remarks. „I believe that what we are able to do at this time for Cuba is really worth the effort“, she adds. ACN has provided 12,000 Euros for the support of this programme. Our heartfelt thanks to all who have contributed!

How ACN is helping the local Church in Homs to distribute aid for fuel and heating

Remond Ziade was 72 years old in that first year of the war in Homs, one of the cities most heavily involved in the fighting since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011. Widespread street protests were met with harsh repression and Homs became the seedbed of some of the first groups of rebel fighters, earning it the nickname of “capital of the revolution”. The main areas of fighting were in the City of Old Homs and the Al-Hamidiya district, an area with a significant Christian presence. By around 2012 life had become unbearable and almost all the inhabitants fled the area, leaving only a few elderly people behind.

One of these was Remond, who had already lost several family members during the conflict but still refused to leave his home, a small apartment which he shared with his two sisters, Afef, aged 60 and Nawal, 74. They remained there, stoically, even though the bombs were falling closer and closer to the little alley at the end of which one could see the balcony of the dining room of his apartment. “One day, we were still sleeping when the impact of a mortar strike made us jump”, Nawal Ziade recalls. “The roof of our sitting room came down, along with the wall leading to my room. I don’t even know how we survived to tell the tale.”

At that point Nawal and Remond were forced to leave their home in Homs. They packed their cases with what little they could cram in and left, without knowing if they would ever be able to cross the threshold of their home again. “They evacuated us to a place outside Homs, where we lived for about a year, but we returned here just as soon as the war stopped, around the middle of 2014. It was practically uninhabitable, but this is our home, and we had no other better place to go to.”

 

ACN is helping the local Church in Homs to distribute aid for fuel and heating

ACN is helping the local Church in Homs to distribute aid for fuel and heating

 

Remond is now scarcely able to speak. A few years ago he had a psychological breakdown which left him partially paralysed and unable to speak. He remains sitting next to his sister on one of the sofas in the sitting room of the same apartment where the bomb fell. The room is arranged around a stove with a long chimney reaching right up to the ceiling and emerging through one of the walls on the outside, facing the street. “It is this that enables us to get through the cold winters here, and we also boil the water for our tea and hang out our washing around it to dry”, Nawal explains. It is an appliance greatly appreciated by this family of three elderly adults.

In fact one of the biggest problems today in Homs, along with the lack of food and medication, is the urgent need for fuel. The stove used by the Ziade family, like almost all of those in Syria, is fuelled by heating oil, a greatly sought-after commodity, given its high cost and short supply since the war. “We are extremely grateful for the aid we receive from the Church, thanks to the support of ACN International. It’s what gives us the encouragement to go on living here.”

 

 

Nawal brings in a fuel container which she keeps below the kitchen sink. It contains heating oil, and she uses it to refill the stove. Then she turns the key and, drop by drop, the liquid trickles out; then she lights it with a taper. The heat comes through immediately. “We’ll just put some water in a kettle and it will be ready in a moment”, she says with a smile to the group from ACN International who have come to visit her in her home.

As she drinks her tea, before the impassive gaze of Remond, Nawal explains to us that they are a Christian family who have always been very involved in the community. “Very close to here we have the church of Saint Marón, and I usually go to Mass every day, although I go less often than I would like because my health will not allow me. You could say that my brother and sister and I are true “children of the Church”, and my father and my uncle also used to work for the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Homs.”

After drinking our tea, she shows us other parts of their house where you can still see the cracks caused by the impact of the bombs. “We didn’t want to leave here, but we had no choice when the roof fell in on us.” Their apartment has been repaired now, thanks to support from the local Church and with funding from ACN International. “I want to say thank you, on my behalf and on behalf of my brother, to all those people who are thinking us. Your work is irreplaceable. And thank you not only for your financial aid, but also having come to visit us and let people know how we are living.”

 

 

The doorbell rings. It is Sara, her upstairs neighbour and her daughter Maryam. They have come to say hello to the visitors and spend a little time with Nawal and Remond. “It is very usual for our visitors to drop in and visit us from time to time, and besides they know that we are on our own for much of the time and need company”, says Nawal. “Come in, would you like a cup of tea?” Sara and Maryam sit down beside the little table with the kettle on it, which is now steaming steadily. “Now the only thing we want is to live in peace and to be allowed to go on preserving the values of peaceful coexistence that existed before the terrible catastrophe of the war.”

The city of Jos in Northern Nigeria has suffered severely from many long years of inter-religious violence at the hands of the terrorist group Boko Haram and just now when it seems to be recovering like the phoenix from the ashes, the incessant Fulani herdsmen attacks that have already affected many other areas in the Country, are putting an end to these hopes.

At the end of September, another fresh cycle of violence was triggered off by a night attack of the herdsmen on Rukuba Road in Jos. Two days earlier, both the military and Fulani herdsmen had come to the area, claiming to search for the corpse of a missing Fulani boy. The outbreak left rendering so many people orphans, widows and helpless. One such person is Blessing Kogi, a 23 year old University student who lives in Jos with her family. In an interview with the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), she explained how she in one night lost her mother, three siblings and six other family members to a tragic attack by the Fulani men.

“In the evening on the September 27 at around 7:00 pm, we were all in the house having dinner, my grandmother, my mother, three of my siblings, my sister-in-law, nephew and three of my cousins. We were eating when unknown gunmen suddenly burst in and opened fire.”

 

Parishioners of St. Francis Parish Fwapwa at the Mass in honour of those killed in the Fulani attacks.

Parishioners of St. Francis Parish Fwapwa at the Mass in honour of those killed in the Fulani attacks.

 

“So, I fell on the floor and played dead, but one of them still came to where I was lying down and shot me twice – in my neck and shoulder.”

“The men who were speaking to each other in the Hausa and Fulani languages, continued their killing spree in my neighbourhood. In total, 15 people were killed in my area: 10 in my house, three in another and two elsewhere. Five people sustained injuries, including three children in another house, and the two of us (i.e. Blessing and her cousin).”

Blessing’s father survived only because he was at work when the terrible attack occurred.

Just like many other victims of such gratuitous violence, Blessing is broken and traumatised. She says, “I feel I don’t have anything left to live for in my life again. My father has not been eating. He cannot even talk. We don’t know what to do and how to start either”

“This situation has really affected my faith as a Christian. Immediately after all this happened, I said many things without even knowing why, like I doubted whether Christ was really there, but I later realized that God is alive and He knows everything and so I leave everything in His hands. Now, I find strength in praying and singing praises to God”, she said.

She makes a passionate appeal to Christians all over the world, “I really need Christians all over the world to help us with their prayers because we are not finding things easy. Pray for us that we will be stronger in Christ, and He will give us the strength of heart to bear this loss.”

 

Jos/Nigeria: The Nightmare of Fulani herdsmen attacks

“I really need Christians all over the world to help us with their prayers because we are not finding things easy. Pray for us that we will be stronger in Christ, and He will give us the strength of heart to bear this loss.”

 

The Fulani herdsmen, also known as the Fulani militia, are a nomadic, pastoralist ethnic group living in the North and central regions of Nigeria, predominately in the Middle Belt. The majority of the Fulani herdsmen are Muslim. They have been clashing with indigenous tribes and locals, mainly Christian farmers, over grazing land for years.

Commenting on the Fulani herdsmen attacks in many parts of the country, especially in his Archdiocese of Jos, Most. Rev Ignatius Kaigama said, “once again, in Jos, innocent lives have been lost, properties destroyed, healing wounds re-opened, psychological trauma caused, inter-ethnic and religious suspicion rekindled”.

“The people have been unable to go about their normal farming activities this year because of the fear of constant attacks. They certainly need help with food, medication, clothing and above all, to be able to return to their homes to start rebuilding without any further molestation by the merchants of evil”, he said.

The Archbishop, who has become the face of inter-religious dialogue in Nigeria, continued, “we shall not give up in our struggle for peaceful coexistence and civilized conduct. Everyone must do his/her part: Religious leaders must sincerely preach peace. Politicians – avoid operating negatively behind the scenes! Security agents – be fair, unbiased and neutral in your operations! Government leaders- care for citizens facing hostile attacks by terrorists/criminals. Youth – avoid irrationality and stop being used! Terrorists/criminals- stop injuring humanity! Life is sacred. Respect it!”

How the Church is helping rebuild the first hundred homes of Christian families in the Syrian city of Homs, following their destruction during the war

The historical Old City of Homs is a quarter of narrow streets and buildings in dark stone, characteristic of the traditional architecture of the city. Before the war, this area was home to a large part of the city’s Christian community, and it is here that one finds the cathedrals and episcopal sees of the various rites and denominations.

“We are now living not far from our old home, which is in the next suburb just around 500 metres away,”, says Elias Ghattas, a father, who had to look on as his family home was destroyed during the bombardments that laid waste to the city, especially in the year 2013. “Around 40 Christians stayed put, most of them elderly people who refused to flee, or sick people who were unable to do so.” An expression of resignation and helplessness crosses his face at being forced to live so close to his former home, yet still unable to resume his normal life.

 

Elias and the engineer Hassib Makhoul, visiting the reconstruction works

Elias and the engineer Hassib Makhoul, visiting the reconstruction works

 

Elías is welcoming a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), in the living room of his present home. With him are his wife, Lina, and Bashar, his youngest son, aged 25. “Thamin, our eldest, is not here. He has been in the Army for seven years. He was conscripted when the war began. Thanks be to God, he is still alive. He has only been able to visit us a couple of times in all those years.” Lina serves freshly made coffee, which fills the whole room with its aroma.

The Ghattas family tell us more about their story. “We didn’t want to leave; we remained in our house as long as possible, but then one day a mortar hit our roof and it all collapsed.” Lina and Bashar’s eyes meet, then she explains: “My son lost one eye, and I was knocked unconscious. Fortunately, an army tank was able to get through the rubble in the street and take us to hospital. It’s a miracle we survived.”

 

Elias Ghattas with his wife Lina Salloum and their son Thamin Ghattas in Homs.

Elias Ghattas with his wife Lina Salloum and their son Thamin Ghattas in Homs.

 

Since then they have had to move three times. First they went to the Al Arman suburb, around 4 km away. From there they were forced to move house again, and then finally they came here, their fourth place, a one roomed flat with bathroom, living room and kitchen. The living room doubles as a bedroom at night-time, a fact borne out by the mattresses piled up against the wall. “It takes a real effort for me to get up the steps with my leg, broken as a result of an illness”, Elias tells us, “but this is all we can afford. The rents have gone up so much in the last few years.”

The Ghattas family have not given up, however, and they want to return to their old home. “It’s our home,  all our experiences and memories are linked to that home. It’s the only place we own and we want to recover it because it symbolises our lives”, says Elias and Lina adds, “For us it’s the most beautiful place to live; we don’t want to go on moving from one house to another.”

 

Main entrance of the Ghattas Family's house.

Main entrance of the Ghattas Family’s house.

 

The courage shown by Lina, Elias and their sons has meant that their family was one of the first to be able to begin reconstructing their home, with the support of the local Church and thanks to the financial aid supplied by ACN. The team of engineers has already assessed the state of the buildings concerned and worked out a meticulous project, so that the families can return to their homes as soon as possible.

Hassib Makhoul is the engineer in charge of the programme for rebuilding the Ghattas family home, and he has taken them to visit the site and see how work has progressed in the last few weeks. “We have been working for more or less a month, and in that time we have been able to restore the electric wiring and plumbing, the front entrance, facade and the distribution boxes”, he explains. “All of this has been done with government approval, of course, but we were able to begin work promptly above all thanks to the financial support from the Church.”

 

Recovering our homes means recovering our lives

Elias and Bashar in the entrance of their house

 

Bashar helps his father negotiate the rubble that still clutters at the entrance to the house, all while explaining to us that he too was able to help with the electric wiring. In fact Bashar would very much like to be able to have a little repair shop as a means of earning a living. “We want peace; we don’t think about the politics. I want only the best for my country, which is for there to be peace soon. We didn’t want to leave, because that costs an awful lot of money, is dangerous.  Besides, we don’t want to leave my brother Thamin on his own, fighting in the army.” From the roof of the building you can see how part of the quarter is still sealed off. “

The engineer Makhoul points to the first works completed to fill the gaps in the walls and make them safe: “This is also to prevent possible theft”. Looking from the balcony of the roof one can see a part of the city quarter: “From the next street onwards there is an uninhabited zone, patrolled by the army. It was formerly a rebel area, and you still can’t enter it.” Then he thanks us for the emergency aid provided by ACN which has made it possible for this house – along with around 100 others – to start being rehabilitated. “We are still in the first phase. We are going to need more aid to be able to finish the work and to rebuild many other homes”, he adds.

Lina explains the reason for her profound hope and optimism. “Prayer is what keeps us going here. Our family was always close to the Church, and the contact with other Christians also strengthens us. We want to thank the benefactors of ACN for everything they are doing for us. It is very impressive. Thank you for remembering us and thank you also for praying for Syria.”

 

“Home is where the heart is and ours is still at our house. We want to return to our house; all our memories and our life is there” says Lina Ghattas. ACN supports the reconstruction of houses that were destroyed during the war in Syria. There are many families like Ghattas family and we want to help them to come home, where their heart is.

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT Aid to the Church in Need, VISIT http://www.churchinneed.org
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ABOUT US

Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 5000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.