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Firmly Planted

Religious communities remain steadfast in Aleppo

The exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians from Syria in the past decade has not shaken the commitment of religious men and women to remain and serve those who stayed behind.

“Those who stayed are the poor,” says Father Georges Fattal, S.D.B., a member of the Salesians of Don Bosco of the small Christian community in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The congregation of priests and religious brothers, founded in Italy by St. John Bosco in 1869 to minister to the young and the poor, marks 75 years of ministry in Aleppo this year.

“Despite the risks, war and death, we will never leave [Syria] because we have chosen to serve the youth,” he says. “Wherever there are young people, despite exhaustion, pain and war, we will stay by them to share in their lives.”

An important Salesian apostolate in Aleppo is the Georges and Matilde Salem Center, which serves about 850 youth with the help of 120 volunteers. Even in the darkest hours of the civil war, which ravaged the country from 2011 to 2021, the center did not close its doors. It was “out of the question” to abandon the children to fear, says Father Fattal, whose community mobilized to create a semblance of normalcy for the children.

“Wherever there are young people, despite exhaustion, pain and war, we will stay by them to share in their lives.”

“We were hit by a cluster bomb [in 2014],” he explains. “Glass was shattered, but we repaired everything immediately and, in the afternoon, we continued the activities with the children.”

The center was a hub for humanitarian relief during the civil war, distributing food and medicine to all people in need without distinction. In February 2023, when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the city, bringing down homes and apartment buildings, about 800 people took shelter at the center, some of them for up to five weeks.

With no resources to spare, the 73-year-old priest recalls how “providence … took care of everything.” With CNEWA support, the center provided three meals a day, medicine and other basic necessities.

Many donations came from past pupils — a term Salesians use to refer to those who attended their schools and programs — before they fled Aleppo, a sign of their appreciation for the work of the Salesians.

Srour Ibrahim, 24, teaches catechism at the center and leads a children’s fraternity. A recent dental school graduate, Srour has no expectations to work as a dentist in Aleppo. Instead, he is among the many volunteers who attended the center as a child and now assists in carrying out its programming.

Salesian Fathers Pierre Jabloyan, center, and Georges Fattal, far right, speak with young people at the Salesian youth center in Aleppo. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

“If it weren’t for this center, we would have left long ago,” he says. “It’s the only place where we 

feel physically and psychologically safe while everything around us is falling apart. For me, it’s like home.”

Johnny Azar, 31, also volunteers as a catechist and heads the center’s youth activities and relief efforts. Among his 35-member peer group that attended the center as children, only he and one other continue to live in Syria. No one from the subsequent peer group lives in Syria, and only two people from the following cohort still do, he points out.

“Everybody is gone,” he says.

Many young men have left to avoid Syria’s compulsory military service, he adds. However, as an only child, Johnny exercised his legal right to opt out.

The number of Christians in Syria, which had a total population of about 23 million in mid-2023, has decreased significantly in recent years. While sources disagree on exact figures, estimates indicate the Christian population has dropped from more than 2 million to between 450,000 and 603,000. The latter figure is reported by Open Doors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to tracking Christian persecution worldwide. This year, it ranked Syria 12th among the 50 countries where Christians suffer the greatest persecution for their faith.

In Aleppo, although there are no official figures, Christian nonprofit groups, including the Blue Marists, estimate the number of Christians to be 30,000, representing less than 2 percent of the city’s population of about 2 million; Christians numbered 150,000, or 10 percent, of the population of Aleppo before 2011.

Altar servers at the Maronite Cathedral of St. Elijah. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

The World Bank reports the economic situation in Syria is in a continual spiral. According to the Middle East Institute, Syrian currency reached an all-time low in August at 15,500 pounds to the U.S. dollar as inflation continued to rise. As well, the monthly state salary in Syria in August was the equivalent of $13, while the cost of a monthly food basket was $81, according to the World Food Program.

“The future of Christians in Aleppo is in God’s hands,” says Father Fattal.

“Our people lack everything; they struggle to meet even their most basic needs,” he says. “We are doing everything we can to help them stay, but God only knows if they will.

“I think no matter what comes our way, some will always remain here because we are the yeast with which the dough is leavened. If Christians leave this place, it wouldn’t be the same,” he says. “May God grant us the strength to persevere and remain in this land.”

“If Christians leave this place, it wouldn’t be the same.”

Father Pierre Jabloyan, S.D.B., the superior of the Salesian community in Aleppo, says he is optimistic about the future for Christians in the city.

“I have great faith, because we must have hope, even when there is no hope,” he says. “Otherwise, our mission here would be meaningless.”

Sister Siham Zgheib says her community also seeks to be “a sign of hope and support for those who have stayed, doing all we can to serve with love.”

The Franciscan Missionaries of Mary have been present in Aleppo since 1914. Their convent in the city was equipped to receive the aging sisters from the province. Before the civil war began in 2011, there were 23 sisters. However, most left and only four sisters remain.

Sister Bernadette D’Hauteville, originally from France, has lived in various places in the Middle East for more than 50 years. She returned to Aleppo in 2014.

“During the war, I remember that we had a very important role to play in welcoming everyone: with the refugees, with the emergency kitchen and with all the groups that were sent here by different organizations,” she says.

As the area around the convent was relatively safe, the sisters received many internally displaced persons from more war-affected regions. From 2012 to 2018, they worked with Jesuit Refugee Service to provide about 18,000 meals a day.

Sister Bernadette was, and still is, in charge of welcoming different groups, adults and children, who are offered psychosocial support and social activities.

“During the war, we had a very important role: to listen to these broken and anxious people, to search for meaning in all this, while the bombs continued to fall on us,” she says.

Since the majority of those displaced were Muslim, it was an opportunity to get to know “the other” better, she adds. Sister Siham, too, considers this opportunity “a gift and a blessing” of the war.

“After the emergency kitchen closed, we realized how their vision of us had changed,” says Sister Siham. “They really appreciated that we opened our convent for them.”

The sisters organized support groups that welcomed displaced Muslim women. They also started a sewing workshop, equipped with machinery, fabric and supplies, where the women learned to make garments and accessories. The sisters then worked to bring the items to market. At the height of the displacement crisis in Aleppo, the workshop employed more than 60 women. This past spring, there were only about 30.

Sister Antoinette Battikh oversees a sewing workshop that employs women. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

The workshop helped to build bridges between faith communities, says Sister Antoinette Battikh, who has overseen the workshop since 2015.

“The Muslim women used to be afraid of us, but when they saw that we didn’t discriminate between Muslims and Christians, they were surprised,” says Sister Antoinette. “They opened up to us, told us their problems, and we always tried to help if we could. Many have gone back home, but when they pass by, they stop to say hello. They haven’t forgotten.”

In 1993, the sisters began a child care center for children with autism. It currently welcomes 17 children and employs eight people. In 2013, they had thought of closing the center, due to the difficulty and costs associated with finding specialized staff. But they reconsidered, as support for the center continued.

“It is providence,” says Sister Siham, the center’s director. “Our main donor is Muslim. He pays the teacher salaries. He is a friend of our congregation.”

Moved by the sisters’ unconditional welcome of all people, members of the Muslim community also funded their relief work in response to the February earthquake, when they opened their convent as a refuge to 150 people.

“In this city, we have always lived together. But, with the war, people became afraid of each other,” says Sister Renée Koussa, the superior of the community who grew up in Aleppo. “In rural areas, Muslims live in closed communities and know nothing about us. This is our role: to be a sign of the presence of Christ where Christ is not known.”

The Mekhitarist Fathers School in Aleppo has sought to provide high-quality education for children, from kindergarten to grade 10, since its founding in 1936.

After the Armenian Genocide in 1915, many Armenians were displaced from Turkey to Syria, and the Mekhitarist Fathers — an Armenian Catholic monastic order that follows the Rule of St. Benedict — founded the school to meet the needs of the growing Armenian community in the country.

Although the Armenian presence in Syria dates to the Byzantine period, after the Armenian persecutions and genocide during World War I, many Armenians and other ethnic Christian minorities sought refuge in Syria, with the largest number in Aleppo.

A student learns Armenian at the Mekhitarist Fathers School. (photo: Raghida Skaff)

The school never closed its doors during the war, even when the fighting came close. During periods of heavy bombing, teachers would lead students to shelter. They also made great efforts to maintain a daily routine that would prevent students from giving in to fear and panic.

Datevig Najjarian, the principal, says the aim is “to offer the most modern education with the latest technologies possible, so parents don’t leave the country to seek better education for their children elsewhere.” The curriculum also includes the Armenian language in an ongoing effort to preserve Armenian heritage.

The school offers significant tuition support, and all Armenian children up to the age of five attend for free. Families with multiple children receive a tuition discount, and tuition is waived for children whose parents are unable to pay.

Despite the tuition breaks, enrollment has decreased significantly, from 1,100 in the year 2000 to 400 before the war began in 2011. This year, enrollment was 180.

Mrs. Najjarian says her decision to stay in Aleppo is rooted in her optimism that the situation in Syria will improve as well as in her conviction that she is called to “stay and serve.”

“Here, we plant hope,” she says. “We always try to lift the children’s spirits. We have to stay. We are needed.”

The CNEWA Connection

Syrians continue to rebuild their lives more than 10 years after the start of a decade-long civil war, a mass exodus, a devastating earthquake earlier this year and a crippling economic crisis. Through it all, the church — in its institutions, religious communities and social service organizations — has continued to stand with those who remain.

Although Syria’s Christian population is small, the role of the church is substantial. CNEWA supports the church in Syria to feed and shelter the displaced, provide an education for Syrian and refugee children, offer health care to the poor and vulnerable, and serve as a beacon of hope for all.

To support this crucial work, call 1-800-442-6392 (United States) or 1-866-322-4441 (Canada) or visit emergency-syria.

Read this article in our digital print format here.

Arzé Khodr is a freelance writer and playwright, based in Beirut.

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