By Joop Koopman
Marking the beginning of Lent 2017 with a pastoral letter obtained by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the leader of the Maronite Church in Damascus, Archbishop Samir Nassar, described the situation in Syria in terms of an “apocalypse … a large wasteland of ruins, pulverized buildings, burned out homes, neighborhoods turned into ghost towns, villages razed to the ground.”
(Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus © Aid to the Church in Need)
The archbishop reflects in particular on the plight of families, children and couples wishing to get married, whom he refers to as “an asset to the future that is collapsing,” as violence, death, imprisonment or enlistment in the army has separated the beloveds; those who are still together, he adds, face the “grave difficulty” of finding “adequate shelter” once married.
It’s “almost rare,” the archbishop says, “to come across a family that is entirely intact;” families, society’s “bulwark” and “foundation” stone, have been ripped apart, as family members have fled, perished in the fighting, languish in prison or are trapped doing the fighting “at the front lines.”
Children—who “are the most fragile”—the archbishop says, “have paid dearly for this pitiless violence.” He cites a UNESCO estimate that more than 3 million Syrian children are unable to attend school; and those that still do must cope with greatly overcrowded classrooms and a shortage of qualified teachers.
Priests, too, suffer, says the archbishop—their flocks are greatly diminished and along with it these pastors’ own social and spiritual fabric that sustains them. Numerous priests have fled and those that remain “are contemplating their eventual departure.”
Instead of “looking for freedom,” the archbishop writes,” the Syrian people “are waging a daily battle” for sheer survival, hunting for food, water, and fuel. The people’s “bitterness” can be read in their “silent looks and in streams of tears.”
Nonetheless, in the face of this somber assessment, Archbishop Nassar concludes that the Syrian Church will make use of the Lenten “time in the desert” to “better guide” the faithful “toward the Resurrected Christ … who tells them: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Mt. 11:18).
(A ransacked Maronite Church in Aleppo © Aid to the Church in Need)
Since the beginning of the war in Syria in March 2011 ACN has funded emergency aid projects to the tune of $21 million. Please help this cause by donating on line at www.aidtochurch.org
Full text of Archbishop Nassar's pastoral letter
A Lent of tears
By Archbishop Samir Nassar
In six years of war the face of Syria has been completely transformed …
A large wasteland of ruins, pulverized buildings, burned out homes, neighborhoods turned into ghost towns, villages razed to the ground … and more than 12 million Syrians (half the population) don’t have roofs over their heads …
They form the largest mass of refugees since World War II. Several million have left the country in search of a kinder environment. Many are depending on hand-outs in miserable camps, many have drowned, and many stand in long lines at embassies. They have become a nomadic people in search of a land that will welcome them. How can Syria escape from this torture?
Families, the bulwark that saved the Church and the nation, have been brutally shaken up. It is almost rare to come across a family entirely intact. The violence has dispersed these foundation stones… some are in their graves, others in exile, or in prison or at the front lines.
It is a very sad situation that has sent the few that remain into a life of mendacity, depression and anxiety.
Engaged couples, separated by the exodus, the emigration of one of the partners or enlistment in the military, are unable to marry—with the grave difficulty of finding adequate shelter finishing off remaining hopes.
An asset for the future is collapsing.
How can we continue on our way without families or with crippled families?
Children are the most fragile. They have paid dearly for this pitiless violence. UNESCO reports that more than 3 million children are not able to go to school; priority is given to their physical survival; those that still attend school have seen the level of teaching drop considerably because of the great overcrowding of those schools that are still functioning and because so many teachers have fled. The educational system is falling apart completely.
Centers that offer psychological support are overrun and overwhelmed by the gravity of the traumas and psychological scars.
How can we restore the spirits of these children damaged by violence and scenes of barbarism?
Parishes under threat
Parishes that have seen the number of faithful drops sharply along with a decline in pastoral activities are depriving priests of their support network, leaving them without essential human and spiritual support. The Church in Damascus has seen a third of its priests (27 pastors) flee, a real blow that has further weakened the place and role of the Christian minority that was already in decline.
Other priests who are still staying put are not feeling secure and are contemplating their eventual departure.
In this waiting mode, they provide socio-humanitarian support to stricken families.
How can we remedy this alarming bloodletting in terms of priests and faithful?
Can we imagine a Church without priests?
Between bread and freedom
Syrians are no longer looking for freedom. They are waging a daily battle to find bread, water, gas, fuel that gets rarer by the day. Electrical black outs, frequent and long-lasting, are darkening our evenings and curbing social life.
There is an ongoing search for brothers, for parents and friends who have disappeared—a search conducted with a great deal of discretion, worry and hope.
Finding a humble place to live, some shelter in a country of ruins has become the impossible dream of families and above all of young engaged couples.
Between a battle for freedom and the search for bread—what road must shall choose?
This small Syrian people live out this devastation with much bitterness that can be seen in their silent looks and in streams of tears.
This bitter Lent of 2017 present us with a time in the desert, to reconsider the Church’s engagement amidst our suffering faithful in order to better guide them toward the Resurrected Christ, Light of the world, Savior of men, who tells them: “Come to me, all you are weary and burdened” (Mt. 11:28).
Archbishop Nassar is the Maronite bishop of Damascus
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