Though Saddened by War, Syrian Bishop Does Not Despair

ROME (CNS) — Ministering in a time of war in his hometown, the Chaldean bishop of Aleppo, Syria, said: “Deep down, I’m not frightened, I’m not scared; I’m sad.”

“Syria was, is and will be a beautiful country,” he said. “Please help us.”

Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo said that, just two years ago, Syria was considered a land of plenty, a welcoming Middle Eastern country that offered shelter to refugees fleeing conflicts in neighboring countries, particularly Iraq.

“Syrians are now poor,” he said at a meeting on 21 March after celebrating a Mass for peace in Syria at Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere. The Mass and a reception afterward were part of a meeting of Catholic charities funding aid projects in Syria through Caritas Internationalis, the umbrella group for national Catholic charities.

Bishop Audo, president of Caritas Syria, thanked the Catholic aid agencies — including the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace — for their “prayers, generosity and constant efforts to put an end to this fratricidal war.”

According to the United Nations, more than 70,000 people — mostly civilians — have been killed and more than 3 million Syrians have been displaced inside the country since the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in March 2011. In addition, some 1.1 million people have taken refuge in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

In his homily, Bishop Audo said Syrian Christians want to be “instruments of forgiveness and reconciliation” in their country. They are “respected and loved because they have not taken sides, they do not seek power, they don’t have vengeance in their hearts.”

“Gazing on the disfigured face of the crucified Christ” on the faces of the aged, the children and the many young people who have been killed, he said, Christians have placed themselves at the service of all, without regard for religious belonging.

Speaking at the reception afterward, Bishop Audo repeatedly referred to the war as a “confessional conflict” between the minority Alawite Shiites and the country’s Sunni Muslim majority.

He insisted Christians have not been targeted as Christians, except in some kidnapping cases, because Christians are thought to have more money.

Bishop Audo said many of his fellow Syrians are saying the fighting will go on and on, “but I harbor trust in Syria.”

“I await a future for Syria with greater democracy and the rediscovery of the art of living together peacefully” with people of other ethnic and religious backgrounds, he said.

In the meantime, Syrians, “who are all in the same boat, so to speak,” are helping each other.

Bishop Audo told the story of five priests who are working with about 100 Muslim families from the outskirts of Aleppo who have taken refuge in two public schools near his house.

The priests, he said, knew they could have been accused of trying to proselytize Muslims or of siding with the anti-Assad militias, because the families come from a strongly pro-militia neighborhood.

“Doing anything or everything in this situation requires true balance, because everything can be read as religiously or politically motivated,” he said.

Still, Bishop Audo said, with support and counsel from the Maronite Archbishop Youssef Abi-Aad of Aleppo, a Lebanese who had experienced war in his home country, assistance to the families at the schools has continued. He said the two bishops now fondly refer to the schools as “our Muslim parishes.”

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