In the paradoxical logic of the Gospel, in the wisdom of the Cross that is revealed only to the least, in that vulnerability which, as St. Paul says, becomes a strength, “the violence that has been tearing Syria apart has become a fount and creator of mercy,” for families, priests of all denominations, the consecrated. The Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, said this in an interview with Vatican Insider. The archbishop sees his community wounded by suffering he also sees it emerging as a tireless champion of compassion and forgiveness, mercy and solidarity, in a way that can only be attributed to the grace of the Father. A gift from God that is able to “bring good out of evil,” Nassar remarked in the special Jubilee, which is also being celebrated in Syria despite the myriad different problems and the mountain of grief and unease caused by the drawn-out war. It was with this providential state of mind that local Christians faced the death of Deacon Camille who was killed by shrapnel in March 2013. His death injected Maronite Catholics with a renewed spiritual energy, inspiring them to build three chapels on the outskirts of the capital, in areas reduced to rubble.
How is mercy expressed among refugees, among families that have been driven apart and scarred by the war?
There are already 12 million Syrian refugees and it looks like this number is going to rise further. Solidarity organisations have made all their resources available and are overwhelmed by the growing needs of these people. So today, the family is the fortress of Middle Eastern society and it must absorb the trauma, offering relief and comfort. In a generous demonstration of solidarity, families of up to 20 people share a single room, share the daily bread, day-to-day life and even the same burial sites. These families do not ask for anything in return, they silently embody mercy”.
How do priests deal with this situation?
“Firstly, it should be said that the sacramental role of priests in all Eastern Churches was significantly reduced because of the war. But their pastoral role has expanded: priests have become invaluable “social workers” in service of poor hard-hit families. The priests offer their tireless service, showing the merciful face of the Lord. Instead of fleeing, they courageously accept today’s mission as faithful servants of mercy, right until the very end because they put their life on the line. The Christian community in Syria has already lost five priests who have given their lives, devoting themselves entirely to dialogue and helping the most vulnerable. Two bishops and four priests are still missing, abducted while on a mission bringing aid to people in serious need.There are also many consecrated people who gave their body and soul to help the poverty-stricken Syrian people. Aleppo was left without any water and electricity for a long time. People lived by candle light. And how can one live without water? Some groups of religious started bringing water to the homes of elderly and sick people. They searched for water in wells that were accessible, filling tanks and even empty bomb shells and delivering 20 litres of water to each house. The “willing hearts soup kitchens” as they are called to prepare food for the needy and are a lifeline for many sick, lonely and vulnerable people. Alongside the humanitarian aid, the religious offer psychological and spiritual support: they give comfort and help people overcome the traumas of war. For example, in Damascus there are specialist teams that offer psychological support to children who have suffered trauma as a result of war and violence. They are composed of children of all religions who are given a sort of “peace re-education”: they learn about what it means to live together and peacefully accept difference. This is a cutting edge project that reveals the silent efforts of the Church and represents a path for the future. Another Jesuit-led movement is aimed at young people, who, today more than ever, are intent on leaving the country, supporting them in this time of unease, persuading them to stay.”
A re there any initiatives worthy of note that benefit the population?
“Many initiatives are developing in secret, away from the media spotlight, such as the activities carried out by the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul, Marian confraternities, orphanages, religious orders, priests and lay people who move around tirelessly visiting places that are crammed with refugees. In this outburst of charity, which demonstrates compassion towards others, the family retains a central role as it is a strong and lasting symbol of the magnificence of mercy, which is what is making the Church and the country move forward.”
Is there any one you wish to mention in particular?
I’d like to mention the Brotherhood Movement which was founded by Lazarist priest Fr. Paul in the aftermath of the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. He and a number of helpers established an artificial limb production centre for disabled people. The Movement was among the first to respond to this merciless conflict which spews out wounded and mutilated people on a daily basis. In partnership with the charity circles working with the parishes, the Movement undertakes the rehabilitation of wounded and mutilated individuals, offering them a period of rest. This is the face of the “Good Samaritan”, who, in Syria, is embodied by Fr. Paul, a true ‘genius of sainthood’.”
How did the idea come about to build three new chapels and what is the significance of this?
“For us it is a peaceful reaction to war and destruction, a gesture performed in the name of Christ. The chapels are the sign of a community that is still alive and alert. The first one, named after the Martyrs of Damascus of 1860, was inaugurated at the start of the year, the other two will be completed in the coming months. I am truly moved to see how much care and thoughtfulness the Maronite community has put into these three projects which are a concrete sign of hope and trust in the future of the Church in Syria, in this Year of Mercy. We were also keen for them to be built in memory of Deacon Camille who was killed by shrapnel, in the vicinity of a church, in March 2013. After that incident, I told priests that if they wanted to they were free to leave the city. But all of them replied to me: if you stay, we stay here with you. Our mission beneath the bombs continues and is a sign of a martyred faith that refuses to die.”