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.

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.

Thanks to the help of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN, the great majority of Christian university students in Syria have been able to continue their studies. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria the foundation has given over 3.6 million Euros in support of these young people’s school and university studies.

 In the midst of a country in which the war has not yet even finished, the young Christians of the city of Homs still remain optimistic. “Little by little, the situation in Syria is beginning to improve. Daily life and public transport are gradually returning to normal, although we still face many economic problems.” This is how daily life in his city is summed up by one young student, Khalil Al Tawil.

Today many people have gathered in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in Homs to celebrate the Eucharist together. The restoration work inside the cathedral is still ongoing, however. You can still see the bullet holes in a large icon which occupies the entire wall of one of the side aisles. The jihadists made a point of shooting at the paintings, and especially shooting out the eyes of the icons of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. Hence the celebration of Holy Mass here, united once again together, is a great gesture of hope.

Among the congregation are some 300 young university students who have been able to continue their studies thanks to support channelled through their local Church, via a project sponsored by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). Khalil explains, “I was given a bursary for educational materials and so I could follow a course in French. I was also given help with transport to the university.”

“There has been a great deal of suffering in Homs, and many families have lost everything in the war”, says another young student, Anaghem Tannous, who is studying civil engineering. “Being able to continue with my studies is what has helped me to remain hopeful and stay happy through these years. Now I want to be able to deepen my knowledge and help other people here in my country.”

Syria: “Being able to continue with my studies was what kept my hopes alive during the war”

Syria: “Being able to continue with my studies was what kept my hopes alive during the war”

Education is an investment in the present and, needless to say, for the future. The young people in this country, and especially the young men, are a section of society that has been greatly affected by the conflict. Every young man aged 18 or over is liable to conscription in the army, without any time limit. The only grounds for exemption are if they are the only male child in the family or else engaged in university studies. This was another reason why millions of young people fled the country, hoping to escape conscription and having to fight in the war.

“Many thanks for your help. There are many of us facing difficulties, but you never failed us with your support”, acknowledges Wissam Salloum, aged 21 and a software engineering student. “I’m in my fourth year; hopefully, next year I will graduate, but I would like to continue my studies in order to avoid being sent to war. I want to remain in Syria and I am hoping that very soon we will have peace, peace for everyone.”

Wissam finds it difficult to put into words his emotions when he is told that kind benefactors around the world are helping him and hundreds of other young students to be able to continue their studies and their careers. “One of the most difficult times I experienced was when the university was forced to close down a few years ago, for several months, owing to the intensity of the attacks. We all thought that we would now no longer be able to fulfil our dreams and finish our university careers and one day enjoy a better life here.”

Outside the cathedral there is a small basketball court on which an impromptu game of three a side is in progress. The cathedral courtyard is a meeting place for these young people, where in addition to celebrating their faith they can share their everyday lives through sport and friendship. Wissam greets his fellow student Ibrahim Karam. “Obviously, the majority of the students in our university are Muslims. It is rare to meet with another Christian at university, so for that reason our friendship is all the stronger. We are friends with everyone, and in fact our Muslim fellow students have a high regard for us. They greatly appreciate the peace-loving attitude of the Christians and the fact that we don’t want to quarrel with anyone, and they look to us with hope in the face of so many difficulties.”

The meeting ends with lunch on the edge of the basketball court. The first buses soon start to arrive to carry back the people who live on the outskirts of the city. A group of friends say goodbye with a hug. “These are the same buses that take us to the university. The Church takes charge of the expenses, and it is a big help to our families, since we barely have enough to eat with or to pay the rent on our homes“, explains another student, Sandra Satmeh.

Her friend, Pascal Napki, also wants to say thank you to us once again, before she leaves. “We know now that we are not alone. This gives us the motivation to complete our studies and at the same time to help those who are most in need here in Homs”, she tells us. “And we want to thank Pope Francis too. I don’t know him personally, of course, but I know that he has spoken many times about Syria and has told the world about our situation.”

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.”

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.”

“After almost 8 years of conflict in Syria, the consequences are indescribable, above all for the little children. Through our campaign we want to raise awareness of the critical conditions into which the country has been plunged and pray for peace and reconciliation.” The words are those of Philipp Ozores, the Secretary General of the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International, who yesterday presented the charity’s campaign Candles for Peace in Syria at the Polish embassy to the Holy See in Rome, an awareness raising campaign formally launched by Pope Francis the day before. In the days leading up to the event over 50,000 children of different religions, from a number of different Syrian cities, had painted images and symbols of peace on the side of their candles. ACN is calling on people of goodwill around the world to respond to this heartfelt cry for peace from the children of Syria, by lighting a candle, as Pope Francis did after the Angelus blessing in Rome on Sunday.

The presentation was attended by many of the foreign ambassadors accredited with the Holy See. “We need the support of national governments”, Mr Ozores told them, adding, “For there to be peace in Syria we need concrete actions.”

 

 

“Our brothers and sisters in the Middle East are the Jerusalem of today”, stated the Polish ambassador to the Holy See, Mr Janusz Kotański, before handing the word to the invited guests from Syria with first-hand experience of the situation. Cardinal Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio in Damascus, described the civil war in Syria as a “slaughter of the innocents” in which many children had been “killed by bombs, drowned in the ocean, suffocated by poison gas, mutilated, traumatised, subjected to sexual abuse, forcibly enlisted in the Army or else – as has happened to many young Syrian girls – forced to “marry” total strangers at an extremely tender age”.

There was profound bitterness in the words of Syriac-Catholic Archbishop Antoine Denys Chahda of Aleppo: “Our churches, mosques, schools and hospitals have been destroyed, as have our lives also”, he declared, before making his own appeal to the diplomats present: “Please convey our message to your governments. We Syrians only ask for justice, peace and love.”

Sister Fida Chaya, a Syrian religious of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Jeanne- Antide Thouret (the Thouret Sisters) described the conflict through the eyes of the children at the school run by her congregation in Damascus, going on to underline the importance of supporting the ACN campaign. “Your gestures of support make us realise that you are close to us, despite the distance”, she said. “And we are also grateful to you for all your prayers.”

 

A “Bridge of light” between Rome and Aleppo – launch of ACN’s campaign: Candles for peace in Syria

 

Sister Annie Demerjian, a Syrian religious of the congregation of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary, displayed some powerful images of the suffering caused by the war, a suffering that she herself witnessed in Aleppo along with its people. “It is difficult to imagine how much the Syrian children had to endure. Children robbed of their childhood and of the joy which should characterise their youthful years”, she explained.

“During these years the faces of the Syrian children have cried out for help. By lighting these candles we can give them hope”, added Father Andrzej Halemba, the head ACN’s project section for the Middle East. He then opened up a live video linkup with a group of children in a primary school in Aleppo, during which both the children in Syria and the ambassadors and other guests in Rome, following the example of Pope Francis, lit up candles made in Damascus. After this Cardinal Zenari lit the first digital candle in ACN’s online campaign “Light a candle for peace”.

 

A “Bridge of light” between Rome and Aleppo – launch of ACN’s campaign: Candles for peace in Syria

 

“A splendid bridge of light has been established” between Rome and Aleppo, said Alfredo Mantovano, the president of the Italian national office of ACN. Quoting the words of the Polish poet Stanislaw Wyspianski, he emphasised the need for “those many who have fallen asleep in the Western world to wake up and redouble their efforts for our suffering brethren, whose testimonies we have heard today, filling us with gratitude.”

For further information about the Christmas Campaign for Syria: https://syria.acninternational.org/

With a symbolic campaign entitled “CANDLES FOR PEACE IN SYRIA” the charity is hoping to highlight the existential drama facing Christians in Syria

In its current Christmas campaign, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) will intensify its efforts on behalf of the various Christian communities in Syria.

The Christian presence in Syria is in grave danger of becoming a relic of the past. Before the beginning of the war Christians accounted for some 10% of the population, around 2.5 million people. As of today it is estimated that approximately only 700,000 remain, which would amount to between 3% and 4% of the population – although it is difficult to give precise figures at this stage.

This dramatic decline is a direct consequence of the humanitarian crisis sparked by the cruel civil war in Syria and subsequently aggravated by the open outright persecution of Christians at the hands of extremist groups such as Daesh /IS and Al-Qaeda.

ACN aims to finance emergency, reconstruction and pastoral assistance projects valued at a total 15 million Euros, and directed especially to the needs of children and young people:

1) Emergency: food, medicines, personal hygiene items, rental dues, electricity and fuel payments for displaced families

2) Reconstruction: private homes of refugee families that have returned as well as other essential structures in Christian towns and villages, such as churches and monasteries;

3) Pastoral: Basic subsistence support for priests and religious sisters, training programs and spiritual care, as well as post-trauma support programs.

4) School fees and scholarships for children and university students, school equipment and educational materials, milk and food supplements for babies and children aged three years and under as well as token Christmas gifts for over 15,000 children.

The campaign will be preceded by a symbolic action in which some 50,000 children from different Christian communities in six war-torn cities of the country (Damascus, Homs, Marmarita, Aleppo, Hassake, Tartous and Latakia) will light candles for peace.

 

Light a Candle for Pease in Syria

Light a Candle for Pease in Syria

 

“By means of this Christmas campaign, ACN hopes to offer consolation to Syrian Christians in the suffering they are going through, for peace still has not arrived everywhere in the country. At the same time we hope to touch the hearts of all people of goodwill and mobilise the world to help this Christian community in the Middle East and allow the Syrians to stay put in their ancient homeland“, explains Thomas Heine-Geldern, Executive Chairman of ACN.

Meanwhile, many Christians in Syria have already expressed their gratitude for the planned campaign. The Greek Orthodox Bishop Demetrios Charbak of Banias, is one of the voices in this grateful choir: “We need to pray and stand together in order to be able to meet all the challenges that face us here in Syria. Candles for peace in Syria is a really beautiful and symbolic idea.”

 

Light a Candle for Pease in Syria

Light a Candle for Pease in Syria

 

The campaign will begin worldwide on the First Sunday of Advent. To mark its launch, the ACN foundation has organised various events, including a formal reception on the 3rd of December in Rome for ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, a direct link up via Skype with children in Syria taking part in the event Candles for peace, and a meeting at the European Parliament on 4 December, where testimonies will be given by two Syrian religious sisters who have been working with and supporting the country’s Christian communities throughout the eight years of the war and are now helping with the reconstruction programme.

ACN is a pontifical foundation which, thanks exclusively to the generous support of  private benefactors throughout the world, is able to support more than 5,000 projects each year, including persecuted Christians and other beneficiaries in greatest need in over 160 different countries. Since the Syrian war began in 2011, ACN has supported projects for a total of almost 29.5 million Euros in the country.

 

For more information about the campaign: syria.acninternational.org

To learn about the state of religious freedom in the world, see: religious-freedom-report.org

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.