ROME – A Franciscan priest and native Syrian currently serving in Aleppo said on Wednesday that while Christians in that tortured country are glad for offers of help from wherever they come, they have yet to see the effects of promised new aid from the U.S. government under President Donald Trump, and that in general he’s skeptical about Trump’s approach to Syria.
“I see American policy with suspicion, and so do many people here,” said Father Frias Lutfi, a Franciscan of the Custody of the Holy Land who currently serves as the vice-pastor at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Aleppo, Syria.
Lutfi spoke by phone during a Rome press conference on Wednesday organized by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a papal foundation supporting persecuted Christians worldwide, which is promoting a Feb. 24 event intended to raise awareness by illuminating major monuments in Rome, Aleppo and Mosul, Iraq, with the color red, a symbol of Christian martyrdom.
Lutfi explained that recently, a Russian plane in Syria tasked with suppressing residual ISIS forces in the country was shot down, and local gossip had it immediately that the forces behind the attack had been financed by the United States. Whether that’s true or not, he said, it’s illustrative of the local mindset.
“We don’t know what Trump’s really after, what economic interests may be behind it, and I worry that offers of help could become a way of buying people off,” he said.
Last October, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced not only an increasing in funding for humanitarian aid to ISIS victims, but also that those funds would be allocated directly to local churches, bypassing what he called “ineffective” U.N.-administered programs.
Lutfi, however, said that local Christians have yet to see concrete results from those pledges.
“No new gestures of solidarity [from the U.S. government] are yet visible,” he said.
If the United States is to step up its charitable role, Lutfi said, it’s key that funding go “to institutions that are genuinely neutral, which aren’t parties to the conflict.”
As for Russia, Lutfi was more laudatory: “Without the intervention by the Russians in Aleppo,” he said, “we wouldn’t have peace now.”
Nevertheless, he quickly added that “the policy isn’t clear” and “there’s a lot of stuff behind the scenes,” making it difficult to know what Russia’s long-term objectives in Syria really are.
On the whole, Lutfi offered a guardedly optimistic reading of the current situation in Aleppo, one of the cities hardest hit by combat between ISIS forces and the Syrian army and its allies.
“One year after the liberation of Aleppo, there are signs of stability from a military point of view,” Lutfi said. “We no longer see bomber planes passing overhead, and we don’t see signs of combat.”
At the same time, Lutfi said, Aleppo and its Christian community face massive challenges of reconstruction and returning to normality after six years of war, which will be far from a “quick fix.”
“It’s not just reconstruction of buildings,” he said. “We also have to rebuild the destroyed human person, especially children and the elderly.”
The scale of the challenge, he said, is magnified by the fact that while Christians who were internally displaced inside Syria or who took refuge in neighboring Lebanon have begun to return, those who fled abroad to the U.S., Canada, or a European destination generally aren’t, saying the number of those returnees can be measured in the “tens.”
As for ACN’s Feb. 24 event, although historians today may debate whether, and to what extent, Christians of the early church really were sacrificed on the floor of the Colosseum’s arena, that doesn’t change much in terms of the public imagination.
As Alfredo Mantovano, an official of ACN, put it, the Colosseum is “a symbol of martyrdom in the whole world.”
In addition to bathing the Colosseum in red light, the Rome event also will feature live images of the Church of St. Paul in Mosul and the Maronite Cathedral of St. Elijah in Aleppo, both bathed in red as well.
Alessandro Monteduro, also with ACN, described the Feb. 24 event as a “sober provocation … to call the attention of the international community to violations of the liberty of faith for all minorities, and, in a special way, to the world’s most persecuted and oppressed [religious minority], which is Christians.”
Monteduro explained that although these initiatives have taken place since 2016, this one will feature a special emphasis on the suffering of Christian women, through two emblematic witnesses:
- Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic mother and laborer in the Punjab region of Pakistan, who was charged under that country’s blasphemy laws for allegedly insulting the prophet Muhammad and sentenced to death. She’s spent the last decade in prison as various appeals have coursed through the Pakistani legal system, and will be represented in Rome by her husband Ashiq Masih and her youngest daughter, Eisham Ashiq.
- Rebecca Bitrus, who was kidnapped and subjected to serial rape by Boko Haram forces in Nigeria. She was pregnant at the time of her kidnapping and lost her unborn child while in captivity. She was held for two years, during which time Boko Haram killed her son Jonathan, and was impregnated by one of her captors and eventually gave birth to the child. Despite all that, Bitrus says she can’t bring herself to hate her captors, and will speak about the power of forgiveness.
A number of dignitaries will be on hand for the Feb. 24 event, including the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, and the Secretary General of the powerful Episcopal Conference of Italy, Bishop Nuncio Galantino. Because Pope Francis hand-picked Galantino for the role and the two are seen as close, his presence is an indirect way of representing the pontiff as well.
Mantovano evoked a line from St. Pope John Paul II, who, during the Great Jubilee year of 2000, spoke of the “new colosseums” of the modern world, meaning the global “geography of persecution” today, in which Christians and other minorities are exposed to threats in a staggering variety of settings.
Mantovano said that anti-Christian persecution in particular is as “forgotten and ignored as it is vast.”
“The aim of this project,” he said, is to “lift the veil of indifference, which also means saving human lives.”