Metropolitan Jean-Clement Jeanbart, Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, in US to Raise Awareness of the Suffering of His Community

Published at May 01, 2015 06:17pm

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Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, the Melkite Archbishop of Aleppo, Syria, is currently in the United Stated hoping to raise awareness of the plight of his people in Syria.  He will be speaking at a prayer service at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land, Washington, DC, on Friday, May 1, at a 7 p.m. service .
*******************************(Question) "In the midst of unspeakable carnage, violence and chaos and a war that has turned Syria into what you have called a land of "fire and blood," what gives you hope that peace will be achieved?"

"Certainly there will be people with human feelings and values who will say, 'It is enough. Stop.' And of course, I have hope in the blessing of the Lord and his powerful intervention to change minds and hearts and to get people to reconciliation."*************************

Following are excerpts from an interview with the Archbishop published in the National Catholic Register by Tom Gallagher on April 29, 2015.  To read  complete article click here
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Will you describe what the Christian community looked like prior to the civil war and what life was like for Christians in Aleppo?

Before the war, Christians in Aleppo lived quietly. We had all our rights. We were respected by everybody. We had good relations either with the government or with [people] of the other religions. You know Aleppo, Syria, holds around 20 denominations -- 11 Christian denominations and nine or so Muslim and other denominations -- and we all live together peacefully as citizens.

And we didn't have problems. We have had problems ourselves -- Christians -- and Catholics, let's say, 50 years ago when [the government] confiscated our schools. It was after the war of 1967. They confiscated all of the Catholic schools. ... Through that time, the government gave us a possibility to offer schools, and in the last 10 years, we were very comfortable with our schools and with our execution of our Christian movement. We were free to write books and to publish magazines, and we were free also to have the right to organize meetings.

How many Christian ministers were in Aleppo before the war?

Around 65 to 70 ministers altogether.

Prior to the war, were Christians active in politics, active in the community, leaders in the community?

You know, it's complicated. I'd say that the Orthodox and the people living in the villages near Aleppo, for example, they were involved in politics because they have been in the Ba'ath Party for 40 years or so. The Ba'ath Party was the leading party in Syria. And in Damascus, they were mostly Orthodox. The Catholics spent too much time connected to the West and to France and to the church, and we were not involved in this social movement or involved in the Ba'ath Party. Perhaps for all these reasons, it didn't encourage us to push our people to enter politics, even though in the last two decades, they began to involve themselves. Our commitment of our people and the Catholic citizens was less important than the involvement of the Christians in the villages.

How would you describe Aleppo today?

Even 10 years ago, Aleppo had grown and improved culturally, industrially, economically, on the level of education, and in tourism. Aleppo has a university with 160,000 students and homes for about 15,000 students, and all that was free, almost free, the university was free, but they would charge something like $2 a month to live in the student homes.

Hospitals were free for any citizen who wanted to go to the government hospitals. It has industries with something like 1.2 million workers. We have archeological remains that make Aleppo more attractive for tourism.

And the people were living well. We didn't have miserable people. We had poor people, but these people were not beggars. They used to live based on the work they had, and they had what they needed. Their children's education was free, the food was very cheap because it was funded by the government. Houses were built for the workers, who would pay very little. Life was good for everybody before the war. But now, everything has been destroyed, stolen. The businesses are frozen. Many, many hospitals have been destroyed. The schools have been destroyed or closed.

How do you communicate with priests and other religious in Aleppo today during the war?

I communicate by telephone, but also by meetings. For my 19 priests, we have a meeting every Saturday and have lunch together, and we spend three to four hours together. We have a weekly meeting with the bishops in Aleppo with their vicars. Every month, we have a meeting between bishops and all heads of Christian denominations, an ecumenical meeting. We have a monthly meeting with all the priests of all the denominations. So we have occasion to meet this way, as well as personal meetings at parishes when I visit them.

The Syrian war is a complicated war with government forces, opposition forces, Kurdish forces, the Islamic State group (ISIS), and gangs. Conflicts within these groups create wars within wars. The fighting and terror is neighborhood-to-neighborhood, province-to-province, with different groups controlling different parts at different times. It's a dynamic environment. How are Christians navigating this war?

I must say that the Christians cannot be comfortable, but with the government authority present, the Christians have protection. But where the government is not present, they are either killed or they have to leave. So when we live in areas controlled by the government, we feel secure.

There are two camps: the government and the official army and the other side. The opposition is in several groups like ISIS, and you have plenty of mercenaries. They are mostly mercenaries coming from abroad. They are opposition fighters. Many are Europeans, Turkish, Algerian, Tunisian. You have Sudanese, Saudi Arabian fighters.

The ISIS-targeted killing of Christians is being called a genocide, an ethnic cleansing, and Christians are leaving their homes with just their clothes on their backs on an exodus, a real via crucis causing an unprecedented dislocation and migration within Syria and out of Syria. Is it possible that the Christian population in Syria can be wiped out?

ISIS is killing not just Christians, but Christians and others who are not Muslims of the kind they want. But mostly Christians. If the war continues, a lot of Christians will leave afraid and scared about what could be the future because when they are in cities and in areas controlled by the government, they have not much to fear. They suffer because of what ISIS is doing to them.

What is occupying Christians is the fear of the future, what the future of Syria will be. If the war continues, we are afraid that many, many, many of them will leave. Certainly, we will have remaining a small group of Christians. I hope the war will end quickly and the Christians will remain. I will do my part to help them stay.  read more
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***The 72-year-old Jeanbart is being hosted by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Catholic charity Aid to the Church In Need

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