Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh, 44 years, Franciscan of the Order of Friars Minor in Custody of the Holy Land. Traces

The Fragrance of Christ Amidst the Bombs

Excerpts from the presentation by Fr. Ibrahim Alsabagh, pastor of Latin Rite Catholics in Aleppo, who told the story of life in the “line of fire.” Just 50 yards from terrorists...
Ibrahim Alsabagh

To try to introduce you to the situation of Christians, of all Syrians, a single word suffices: we live in chaos, in a total lack of order. Aleppo is divided into dozens of sections, controlled by various jihadist groups. We live in the section of the city under government control. We are deprived of everything, especially of safety, because the militia attacks don’t spare houses, or mosques, or churches, neither children nor the elderly. Many parts of the city have been completely destroyed, such as the ancient Christian neighborhood close to us that is now in ruins. The attacks are continuous, and they’re getting closer to our monastery, to the immensely beautiful church of St. Francis; we’re really in the line of fire and we don’t know when we will be hit. We’re under fire. The onslaught continues and breeds death: many mutilated, many driven away, there is so much terror and bitterness in people’s hearts. Food prices are sky high and people can’t afford it. Those who were wealthier have left by now; those still there with us are the poorest. We’re short on medicine and health care as well because many doctors have already left the country. We’re short on water, which is a deadly problem that keeps getting worse. Jihadist groups control the pumps and re-direct the water to the river to keep people from drinking. Our houses have neither water or electricity. We suffer incredible thirst, and some have even died of it.

How can you convince a Christians to stay? Why should they stay? It is better to escape. It surprised us to find out that many of our young Christians, those who are very well educated, would be willing to throw themselves into the sea to get to a country where it’s safe. More and more people are leaving, or will leave Syria. For us Christians of the Middle East, especially in Aleppo, it’s like living out the book of Revelation, which I meditate on every day: the horses of death, the thirst, and illnesses that will come at an unknown time... suddenly. We live in total and continuous instability.

What is our life like there? What can we brothers do, just 50-60 yards from the jihadist militants? The poor people look at us with hope, expecting many things from us. Our responses are not passive–we have to be patient and carry the cross every day, as they are immediately applicable. Our response, which is the response of faith, of the Resurrection, requires a positive action: it means being ever attentive to the movement of the Spirit, to the needs of the people, Christians and Muslims. When a woman knocks at the door, asking for water, it matters not that she has a veil or not, but that she is thirsty. The same goes for starving children and those who are fleeing bombs and need to find safety.

Creative Element
My fellow brothers and I suffer a lot, not only because of our own personal suffering, which is important and invaluable, but also because we see men and women robbed of their dignity. It’s the suffering of Christ crucified today, in humanity, in Christians and Muslims alike. Through a profound posture of listening to what the Lord says and to the cry of the innocent, we are able to understand how to respond. For those heavy crosses, we really have to learn from Jesus who, during His three-hour crucifixion, still knew how to think of others, of Mary’s future, of John and the salvation of those close to Him, of the good thief. Despite His suffering, He was thinking about how He could save not only the whole world with his redemptive action, but of each individual neighbor suffering with Him. He thought of something even more beautiful: forgiveness. Forgive: to forgive those who crucified Him, even though they didn’t ask. Our response has a creative element, it comes from faith, from Jesus’ example. To face the water shortage, we hired drivers and little trucks with tanks and pumps. On the last run we had 500 families on the list but we only managed to visit 30 or 40 a day. We opened the well at the monastery and, with the help of volunteers, distributed many liters of water every day from morning to evening. We thank God we have drinking water. People come even from far away, from morning to evening. Many elderly people who live alone can’t manage to come get water so, with volunteers between 12 and 18 years old, we take water to them at least every other day.

We’ve been transformed: some days I look at myself and laugh because I, who love books and theological discussions, instead find myself acting as a firefighter, a nurse, a nanny and, on top of all of this, a priest. But it’s really beautiful because this is the authentic experience of one who is consecrated, who like laypeople, hear the call to serve and to build up the Church.

Our First Duty
Fear reigns in many hearts and the suffering is very great, not only for Christians but also for the Muslims who are ashamed of what is happening. We don’t know when it will end, just like the persecution of the first Christians, but it doesn’t matter when it ends, the important thing is not knowing how to save ourselves but to witness Jesus Christ. We also need to think of a political solution, an action plan, but our first duty is to be witnesses of the Christian life, carrying the cross with love, forgiving, and thinking of the salvation of others as well. We’re 60 yards from the terrorists who breed death and terror. Still, in our community we offer our suffering every day for their salvation; we pray for them, we forgive them. A woman who lives close to us, where most of the families were Christian, was complaining because many Muslims have come to live near her–they’ve rented or bought homes that belonged to Christians. She felt that something major had changed–the air of the streets, the eyes of the people–and it made her uneasy. I told her, “Couldn’t it be that God permitted the people and the environment around us to change so that the fragrance of Christ can reach them, too? Could it be a beautiful mission that the risen Lord is asking of us?” If that’s the case, there’s no reason for uneasiness, but to think only of what our risen Master is asking of us, of how we can witness the faith to the people who come.

Bombed out buildings in Azaz, Syria. Wikimedia Commons

Not Afraid
We have so much to communicate. We’ve learned from Church’s history that a Christian is not afraid of anything: not of confrontations, nor diversity, nor of opening the doors to others. He’s not afraid of living with anyone. The Christian has a treasure in his heart that is so solid that he can freely dialogue with everyone without losing his nature; or rather, his very nature is made of dialogue. That is what we Christians there, in the middle of a city that’s half rubble, try to do with everyone. Often we manage to communicate these values without saying anything. A few days ago, a Muslim who had always worked with us came to me and said, “Father, when I see how people come to get water, with a smile and a great peace in their hearts, without fighting, without yelling... I, who’ve been all around Aleppo and see how they’re killing each other to get to wells, am amazed. You are full of peace and joy. You are able to share with others, including with Muslims, with so much peace. Father, there’s something different about all of you.”

We'll Love More
Many dream of escaping, which is natural; they have experienced every kind of evil you could imagine. But we’re convinced that if the Lord, on a certain day in history, at the beginning of the Church, planted the tree of Christianity in the culture of Syria, of the Middle East, then we Christians today don’t have the right to take this olive tree and plant it somewhere else, as it’s God’s will that we bear fruit there. The roots of our faith are there in the land St. Paul passed through; it’s the land of our martyrs, and many families are convinced that staying is a great, important mission. Just imagine if all the Christians left the Middle East and came to Europe: think how long it would take for the Lord to sow the seed of Christianity again. Our presence there is a mission, and we’re staying. We’re not giving up, we’ll love more, forgive more, witness more. With faith, hope and charity, we’ll continue our journey, which is the Way of the Cross. We know that Christian life isn’t easy for you here either, for a child trying to make a serious journey with the Lord, for those who live in Italy, in Germany, or the United States... it’s always a journey on a narrow road: so many difficulties, but many victories. Our life begins with suffering and we live with death as well, but we are not afraid because we have the strength of the Resurrection. Is this not the first mystery of Christianity? Thanks to the faith we know our sufferings carry great meaning, meaning that is redemptive for us and for those who kill us, and even for the whole world. It’s the reason to live, and the reason to die.

In Aleppo I see countless signs of the Resurrection: for example, having Mass every day from the beginning of the crisis up to today is already a miracle in my mind. That we’re still alive is a great miracle. We are more appreciative of the gift of life, and more full of gratitude every day to God who gives us so much. Going back to the “lack” mentioned in the title of the Meeting: for me, seeing the search for God, the thirst for a life in communion with God in Christians, in priests and in bishops, is a sign of the Resurrection. I see this reawakening of a great search, and the experience of a great void, in our brothers and sisters of other religions as well. In the face of fundamentalism, questions become essential: is the journey we’re following the truth? How often we see those seeking God, including amidst our Muslim brothers and sisters: those who knock on our door, who ask about Jesus Christ, who come into the church to hear the Word. So much yearning and thirst has been reawakened. In the persecution, in all the suffering we’re living, we are certain that this too is a clear sign that the risen Jesus is present, still, there in Aleppo.