Syrian government forces continue their march towards Idlib. Rebels and jihadis are waiting for reinforcements from Turkey. Fr Ibrahim talks about the “sound of rockets” that fall every day and risk sparking a new exodus in a country at a breaking point. The Pope’s letter to Assad shows “the concern of father”.
Aleppo (AsiaNews) – The situation is once again “very difficult” in Aleppo with “the sound of rockets falling every day”, in a crescendo of violence that has “no confessional background” but can strike anyone, this according to Fr Ibrahim Alsabagh, from the Latin parish of Aleppo, northern Syria’s largest city and one of the main battlegrounds in the civil war that broke out in March 2011.
Speaking to AsiaNews, Fr Ibrahim notes that the new escalation risks driving more Christians from their homes as instability continues to harm them emotionally. “Syria is at its economic breaking point.” For now, Syrian government forces are pursuing their offensive towards Idlib, in the north-west, the last stronghold in the hands of jihadist and rebel groups (supported by neighbouring Turkey).
The regular army has retaken a string of villages south of the city and are moving towards the town of Khan Sheikhun, key for a final offensive. Anti-Assad militias have responded with a counter-offensive, waiting for reinforcements promised by Turkey across the border.
As tensions grow, the parish priest of Aleppo’s Catholic community feels “like Noah building a new ark in the desert to keep hope alive”, thanks also to the constant support of Pope Francis, who in his recent letter to Assad showed the “concern of a father [. . .] saddened by the escalation of violence”.
Here is Fr Ibrahim’s interview with AsiaNews.
Father, attacks and violence have recently escalated in Aleppo. What is the situation like?
The situation in Aleppo remains very difficult. Every day, we hear the sound of rockets falling on some parts of the city. And the attacks go up, deliberately, at Muslim holy days.
Are Christians victims of the violence?
The victims and the violence have no confessional background, which is why civilians are affected without distinction. Beyond the actual number of people involved, the situation is such that residents feel again anguish and fear. The terrible days of the crisis come back to mind and make us fear that there will never be a return to normality. For the Christian community, this means that more families – who have resisted all these years – will decided leave the country for good.
For a while the war seemed to be at an end. Have things changed recently?
Yes, we see the situation getting worse, but the problem is not only related to the fighting still taking place in many places. For those who have resisted and remained, the ongoing conflict and the instability strongly affect people already emotionally harmed, preventing us from truly beginning to live and think about the future.
Syria is at its economic breaking point. There is no electricity for many hours a day and this makes it impossible to restart production. Inflation is up, the currency is losing value and the purchasing power of families is dropping. The situation is so complicated that new material and other needs arise. At the same time, economic assistance continues to decrease because, contrary to what one may think, the real problems begin as the crisis persists so that some situations become chronic.
What brought about this change?
From what we see from the situation in Idlib and across the country, it is clear that no international agreement has been reached regarding the future. So, all the parties have decided to let force rather than dialogue speak. In the end, it is the civilian population that always pays the highest price.
It’s summer. In the past, at this time, the Church in Aleppo always promoted youth activities. What initiatives are planned this year?
Parish activities do not stop in summer. Although we try to slow down the pace a little, pastoral and humanitarian work take all our time and energy. We have just concluded the summer oratory, with the presence of over 300 children and about 50 educators, catechists, teachers, and collaborators at various levels. Now it’s camp time. Many people with various needs knock at our door every day.
A very positive and decidedly unexpected development is the fact that, despite fear and uncertainty, many young couples have decided to get married and build a new family together.
We also see births increase. With great joy, in addition to accompanying young couples on their journey of preparation for the sacrament and later years, we accompany families who welcome a new life and prepare to celebrate baptism. We help them even in the more tangible needs of life.
Caring for new families, who are the future of the whole community, makes us feel like Noah building a new ark in the desert to keep hope alive. As in Noah’s case, there are those who make fun of us, wondering mockingly if there is a future for Aleppo.
Father Ibrahim, are there signs of optimism?
As I said, the situation is very serious, but we have not lost hope for this reason. For us, hope is not placed in human decisions, but in giving our life to the Lord.
After almost a month, are people still speaking about the Pope’s letter to Assad?
The Pope’s letter shows the concern of a father or a mother, a humanitarian concern. [The pontiff] spoke out on his own, saddened by the escalation of violence that continues to affect a country towards which he has expressed particular affection and concern. On the other hand, he is a messenger of Christ, king of peace, who does nothing but call for piousness and reconciliation. We cannot but thank the Pope for not forgetting Syria, whilst the whole world seems no longer to remember the tragedy we experience every day.