On 17th December, an event was held in the Vatican under the patronage of the Dicastery for the Service of Charity, when three people, who have stood out in their lives in the fight against poverty, were received and rewarded. The distinction for this commitment to the poorest and most vulnerable was awarded to them by Pope Francis on the day of his birthday, as a sign of gratitude for the tireless work by these three “examples of charity”. The recipients of this prize, called the “Flower of Gratitude” included the Syrian friar of the Custody of the Holy Land, Fr. Hanna Jallouf.
For years Father Hanna has worked very hard for the poor in Syria in a desperate context of war and devastation, representing a fundamental point of reference for the local Christian community.
We reached Fr. Hanna by phone and with great emotion he answered our questions.
Fr. Hanna, we would like to congratulate you on behalf of the whole of the Custody of the Holy Land for the distinction you have received from the Holy Father. How did this meeting go?
Thank you very much! The meeting went very well. It was a great honour for me, but also for the Custody, for the Order (Franciscan, ed.’s note) and for the whole of the Church. I was received at the entrance by two cardinals, who took me and the other four friars of the Delegation of the Holy Land who were accompanying me, to a loggia on the second floor. There, according to the intentions of the Holy Father, we recited the rosary for the world and for all the poor. Shortly afterwards, we were received by Francis and I was the first of the three to receive the distinction. I have spent the last twelve years working with my people in Syria, facing war and destruction.Despite everything that has happened, we friars have not run away, because the Franciscans never abandon the faithful to their fate. We have stayed with them until today in their suffering. This is why the Holy See decided to reward me as a sign of gratitude also to be extended to all those who are living and working in a theatre of war.
How did the convocation come? Were you expecting it?
No, not at all. When Cardinal Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio of Syria called me, I really was not expecting it. I told him that it was impossible for me to go to Damascus, let alone to Rome! All the means of communication between the capital and us were closed. He answered, “Father, try to come because the Holy Father wants to meet you.“I walked for three days and three night from the Valley of the Orontes (Governorate of Idlib)to Damascus, crossing Syria. Before the war it only took an hour and a half to make the same journey. Then at last I arrived at my destination. I have to say, though, that it was worth it because it was a great joy for me, but also for the Holy Father. Pope Francis was very pleased and he confessed to us that it was the first time in his life that he felt such joy on his birthday.
Do you feel you can share this distinction with someone?
Yes, of course. First of all I would like to share it with my brother Fr. Luai Bsharat who in the past few years has been with me in Syria with all the difficulties and the criticalities of the situation. Despite everything, he came to help me and stayed at my side.
Then I share it with all my people who have suffered with me and have also resisted, remaining firm in their faith until today without ever leaving their land. We have borne witness to the whole world that we are Christians and that we will not abandon our roots.Because, exactly where we live, St Paul walked. The dust on our roads is the same that many saints over the centuries trod in, especially St Paul.
What does it mean to be a friar of the Custody of the Holy Land and receive this distinction?
It means bearing witness to the whole world that we friars of the Custody are not only those who look after the walls of the Holy Places; we are also and above all here to look after and protect the living stones, the people. We are with the poorest and the most desperate, we are and we will always be at their sides, bearing witness to the world that the Church is still flourishing, the Church is still beautiful and that our faith is an immense joy.
What will you do now?
Before returning to the mission, I will go to Damascus to spend Christmas with my family for the first time in thirty years.
I would also like to take the opportunity of this interview to thank some people. I thank the Custos, his vicar and all the Custody of the Holy Land who helped me continue on this path, to continue along this road. Then I want to thank the Order, our Father General who wrote me a beautiful letter of solidarity two months ago and all those who over the years have been at my side. Lastly, I thank the Holy See, the apostolic nuncio of Damascus and all my brothers who work in this field, in and outside the Custody.
Interview by Filippo De Grazia