“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

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.

“Thanks to the support of ACN International, we don’t feel alone”

The Houdaib family is an extended family, like so many other families in Syria. Evon is the mother and grandmother of the tribe. At the age of 80 she is still the head of the family, and especially now, since her husband George died of heart problems a few years ago. “We have 11 children, all of them still alive, thanks be to God. I know that this is somewhat unusual given the times we are living through in Syria today. Many families have lost children, parents, brothers or sisters.”

The family welcomes a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) to their recently refurbished house in order to share with them their joy in returning to the family home. The Houdaibs had lived in this house since they were newlyweds. But in 2012, during one of the worst bombardments to hit the city, part of the roof came down, blocking the entrance to the house. The family home is on the ground floor of a block of flats in the Al Hameedye quarter, close to the historic centre of Homs. Until recently, in order to get to their home, you had to climb over a series of rubble barriers blocking the streets, barricades built during the fighting.

Today all this rubble has been cleared away from the streets, and although access is still difficult for vehicles, it is possible to come and go on foot with a degree of normality. Standing out among the buildings nearby is the Haiyar Palace, once one of the architectural jewels of Homs. People in the neighbourhood have put up some images of the Way of the Cross as well asa large cross in front of the building, which is surrounded by ruins. “Formerly this was a mainly Christian area, and we want to preserve this atmosphere, even though many of our neighbours still haven’t returned”, says Marwan, Evon’s eldest son.

Marwan expresses his thanks for the support of the local Church which, with financial help from ACN, has funded the repair work on his mother’s house. “We still rely on help, because we don’t have the money for medicines or to pay for an operation that my sister has to undergo. The fighting has moved on northwards from Homs, towards the Idlib region, but now we suffer from an enormous economic crisis- There is no work and the power cuts still occur.”

The local Church gave 500,000 Syrian pounds – or 1,500 Euros – to the Houdaib family. “It may not seem like much money in other countries, but here it’s a small fortune today. Of course we know that people outside Syria are helping us in a spirit of disinterested generosity. I don’t know how to thank them, we no longer feel alone, thanks to them”, says Ragaa, one of Evon’s daughters.

There are a number of grandchildren belonging to the third generation also gathered in the house,. Among them are Wael, aged 20, who works as a delivery man in a restaurant, and Joudi, 13, who is still at school and wants to go on and study pharmacy in the footsteps of her aunt Ragaa. They tell us that the most difficult thing to bear in these last few years was having to flee from one place to another, and suffer separation from their cousins and friends.

“Yes, it has been a great trial”, Evon confesses. “We had to go from here to Feiruzy, a small town on the outskirts of Homs, then from there to Hanessa, another place just outside the city. Then in 2016, after Homs was liberated, we returned here, but we couldn’t come back to the apartment until a few months ago, and that was thanks to the help of ACN.”

 

Joudi and her brother Wael

 

Despite the fact that many Syrians were forced to flee, some even abroad, the Houdaib family tried hard to remain united, and now they are very happy to be back together again. “The reason why we wanted to come back to our former home was to fulfil the wishes of our father George”, Marwan tells us. Evon nods in agreement, goes out of the room and returns with a photograph of her husband. “I’m so sorry that my husband was not able to see this house rebuilt; it was his great dream”, Evon adds.

Marwan now works as a driver for the archdiocese of the Syrian Orthodox Church, the seat of which is the church of Saint Mary of the Holy Belt. This church is built over an ancient crypt which was a place of prayer for Christians dating back to the year 50 A.D. According to tradition, this church contains a belt once belonging to the Virgin Mary and given by her to Saint Thomas the Apostle upon her Assumption into heaven. It is a relic kept with great devotion and bears witness to the profound Christian roots of Syria. The Houdaib family is one of the many who come to this place to ask Our Lady’s protection and for peace in their country. “We have lost everything, but we have not lost our faith. We remain united, we go to church and celebrate Mass together. That is where we draw the strength that we need”, Evon tells us.

Theirs is one of the first 100 families who – thanks to the support of organisations like ACN – have so far been able to return and rebuild their homes after years of war and destruction. They know well that they still have many challenges ahead of them and a great deal of work to do, but they assure us that they will never leave this land, and that their home is open to anyone in need.

In May 2018 ACN supported the restoration of 100 houses in Homs, with a total of 300.000 Euros

Aid to the Church in Need is supporting the pastoral work of the Sacred Heart Sisters in the Syrian city of Homs.

 

The church of Altip, in the Bab Al-Sebaa district, just south of the Old Quarter of Homs, is a social and pastoral training centre. “Years ago it was a Catholic school, but then the government banned all non-state schools. Since then we have used it as a catechetical centre, giving religious instruction to young people and adults, and we also hold social events and sports days here”, explains Sister Samia Syiej, the religious sister in charge of coordinating catechetical instruction for a group of Confirmation children.

Sister Samia is a member of the Sacred Heart Sisters, a congregation founded in Syria and inspired by Ignatian spirituality. “We have 12 houses throughout Syria. I am also involved in pastoral work with handicapped children. Our congregation is very active and we pursue a range of initiatives, both pastoral and social”, she continues.

 

Sister Samia Syiej

Sister Samia Syiej

 

Sister Samia points out the exact spot where the bombs fell, close to the centre of Altip. “Local families have helped us to repair two sections of the roof which were destroyed by the bombing. But in addition to everything else, what we now have to do is to help repair not only the external damage, but the damage within people’s hearts. I am a religious, and my first responsibility is to bear witness spiritually and help people. This is what moves me. We lived through the war and witnessed it close up. Catechesis is important in helping to heal the wounds.”

Working alongside Sister Samia are a number of young university students who divide themselves between the various different catechetical groups and actively help in this pastoral apostolate. A delegation from our international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) happened to visit while they were endeavouring to explain to the young boys and girls about the life of Jesus during his Passion and Crucifixion, a central point of the Christian faith. One of these catechists is Haya Elias. “Sister Samia taught us how to become closer to God, and now we are passing this on those who come after us.” She is studying philology at university and has always been a member of the group helping the sisters.

 

Children Gifts for Christmas in Aleppo 2017

Children Gifts for Christmas in Aleppo 2017

 

“I am very conscious that I owe my life to God and to the prayers of people like Sister Samia”, says Jihad Alaji, a young man who is currently unemployed. Jihad was in the army of the Assad government, compulsorily recruited to fight in the war. During an ambush he was captured by a rebel group and held prisoner for months. Everybody assumed he was dead, but miraculously he succeeded in escaping. “I thank God, and I thank the sisters for never having given up praying for me. I am so grateful to them today and so now I am helping them as a catechist.”

The Church in Syria is very much alive, despite more than seven years of war. The priests, and the religious brothers and sisters in the country have become a fresh source of hope for the people. “We have never stopped offering our help, our prayers and our accompaniment… Everything is being done through the collaboration of the priests, religious and laity. We all work together to organise these activities and, thanks be to God, we have some very active young people”, Sister Samia continues.

In addition to coordinating the religious instruction, Sister Samia also works in a home for mentally handicapped children. “We have always carried out projects with the help of ACN, even during the bloodiest moments of the war. Children and adults alike often need a word of hope, and want to grow stronger in their faith. The children come to the church, and they can also be very demanding. During the summer, for example, we held a number of youth camps, which gave fresh hope to many people. This is what motivates us.”

During the year 2018, and thanks to the generous help of our many benefactors throughout the world, the pontifical foundation ACN has been able to support more than 35 pastoral courses and programmes for young people and children in various different parts of Syria, for a total cost of 170,000 Euros.

 

Children Gifts for Christmas in Aleppo 2017

Children Gifts for Christmas in Aleppo 2017

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 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.