Syrian Christians celebrate the Divine Liturgy at Jesus the King Chaldean Catholic Church in Hassake, in late May. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)
The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)
Young children enjoy an art class, part of a church-run summer camp program in Hassake. (photo: Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas)
The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. Since the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups fighting in Syria’s civil war, Christians there have been hunted down because of their faith. During a brief visit to Beirut, Father Thomas shared his thoughts on his ministry and the challenges facing his community.
The situation in Syria has been deeply troubling. The main challenge I have faced during the last few years has been to bring hope to my community, especially after ISIS attacked the Hassake governorate and the Assyro-Chaldean villages along the Khabur River. Churches and houses were burned or destroyed and more than 150 people were kidnapped. We helped the displaced families, providing shelter, food and medical assistance.
All this has been happening to a church and a people with a long and rich history in this region. Christians are the salt of Syria — and its light.
I am a Catholic priest of the Chaldean Church, which is one of the 23 Catholic Eastern churches in full communion with the bishop of Rome. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Chaldean Church is led by Patriarch Louis Raphael I in Baghdad. Our Christian faith has given so much life in the Middle East — we belong here — but our communities are being destroyed in Iraq, Syria and the other countries impacted by the fall out of the “Arab Spring.”
Christians are leaving; we cannot prevent families from emigrating. They have the freedom to choose between staying and leaving, as they want only a decent life. But how can you be a good shepherd for a parish whose members were forced from their homes, their land, and their livelihoods?
I have vowed to stay with my parish and those displaced from other areas. I have struggled. However, with the support of the patriarch and my bishop, Antoine Audo, S.J., of Aleppo, who has helped provide material, medical and humanitarian support, we are helping to provide, as much as possible, the basic needs for the displaced Christian families remaining in our part of Syria.
Beyond those necessities of food, health care and shelter, our presence as priests and religious helps give hope to the people of God, where it is lacking. As shepherds — men and women who have left everything and followed Christ — our faith and trust in Christ binds us to the people. We have reopened education centers and provided recreational and pastoral activities for children in the summer.
We are still here.
Jesus Christ remains our inspiration. We are strengthened by his grace. Despite the circumstances, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, honor the Virgin Mary and pray to Christ, asking for peace from the King of Peace. As a priest, I have given my life to serve the Lord and his people. Some have become martyrs in order to free their homeland. Yet, we continue to live in hope. As Jesus Christ said: “Take courage, I have overcome the world.”
We live in hope that the West will learn that Syria doesn’t need weapons and alms. Syrians are just in need of honest intentions from all key countries, so we can find a way to peace.
But we also live in fear. The Kurds, who are in the majority in northeastern Syria, have formed a new authority parallel to the central government in Damascus. The Kurds are hoping to achieve independence and have taken control of the oil wells, made military service mandatory, imposed taxes on the citizens and have introduced Kurdish in the schools. Our fear is that after ISIS is cut down, the central government will try to limit the Kurds’ control and a new conflict will erupt and eventually push our youth to emigrate.
It’s worth mentioning here the hard situation so many are facing. Consider health care, for example. Public and private hospitals are not fit to receive patients, which affects their health — especially patients with chronic cases. Because of a lack of medication paired with the emigration of 80 percent of the country’s doctors and nurses, neither the government nor the Kurdish authorities can meet the needs of the citizens.
Daily life is difficult because of the expensive living conditions. Unemployment is a huge problem. It is hard to meet even the most basic needs, especially as the price of sugar, rice or any other basic food keeps rising. People, who can barely afford to live as it is, are forced to pay bribes at checkpoints. The average salary ranges between $70 and $100 per month. There is also very little electricity, so people have to use a portable generator, which contaminates and pollutes.
Agricultural production has decreased by 70 percent in the region, because ISIS burned and destroyed much of the most fertile land. About 30 percent of the agriculture activity is still ongoing, so some people can find a way to survive.
In the meantime, we cope. From the start of the attacks on our region, we have daily liturgies with the children of the parish, and afterward we gather to talk about our fears and concerns. The children are encouraged to participate in the Divine Liturgy and to get involved in catechetical and pastoral activities so they grow in the grace of Jesus, develop a prayer life and make their faith a part of their lives.
So how can I be a good shepherd? I spend time with every single person who belongs to the parish. I want to know what is happening in their lives. I help them to focus on their faith, their Christianity. And I try to stay connected with people, even those who have left the country — we have a Facebook page for the Chaldean community from Hassake. Social media helps our people — especially those now scattered worldwide — know what is happening with their parish and their families, and updates them on new activities in the area.
Our faith always calls for peace, but politics and bad politicians are always setting fires and disturbing the situation. I try to stay away from political discussions. My mission is to take care of my parish, to help my parishioners and to try and enrich the parish with fruitful spiritual activities.
While Syria’s many Christian communities face many and varied challenges right now, there is only one thing we all truly need: peace.