May people in Syria look to the Church, see love in action, and be converted

The Franciscan friars who run the Custody of the Holy Land have decided, after consulting among themselves, not to abandon their communities in the Orontes valley, Syria, which are currently ruled by Al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists, despite the dangers they run in living and ministering in these circumstances.

The news website Breitbart has the story here and the original story in Italian is here, with links to another article which gives details of the Franciscan presence in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan (also in Italian).

The Franciscans are men of peace, as Catholics, as religious, and as followers of Saint Francis, and one hopes this means they will not be molested, though, given the volatile situation in Syria, this hope is a fragile one. The decision to stay in the parts of Syria ruled by jihadists is brave, some would say a foolish. However, it is all part of a larger picture, when one looks around the world.

Every year, priests, religious and bishops are killed because they have chosen to minister to Catholic communities in dangerous places. This article gives some recent figures about clergy deaths in these circumstances.

The four hundred or so Catholics living in the Orontes valley must be immensely cheered to know that their priests are not to be withdrawn.

Life must be tough for them, especially as they are extremely restricted as to the expression of their faith, as well as facing considerable economic hardship and an uncertain future. But at least they have the consolations of religion.

It will be twenty years this summer since I was in Syria, but my memories of my visit are still vivid. I remember the River Orontes, which flows from south to north, unlike every other river in the region, and is thus known in Arabic as the ‘rebel’, or Asi. I remember sitting in Hama with a cold drink and listening to the groans of the waterwheels.

It was in Hama, in 1982, that the Assad regime suppressed a rising by the Muslim Brotherhood with astonishing brutality, surrounding part of the city for the best part of a month and shelling the inhabitants. It is hard to know how many, mainly civilians, were killed, but it must have run into many thousands.

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The centre of Hama was reduced to rubble. It seemed, when I was there, almost impossible to imagine that the peaceful and picturesque riverside town could have been the scene of such horror, a mere fourteen years previously. But now, seeing what has passed in Syria over the last five years, we can see that Hama was in fact the dress rehearsal for what was later to befall numerous other towns ands cities.

Back in 1996, Syria seemed normal, to the unobservant visitor. Every roadside was decorated with pictures of President Assad and his two sons, Bassel and Bashar, even though Bassel was by this time dead. This struck me as absurd at the time, as did the political slogans such as “Aleppo says Yes to President Assad!” referring to a recent referendum in which an incredible 99% of the population had answered the correct way to whatever question had been put to them. Like much absurdity, it was also sinister, and it is now clear that the massacre at Hama had not saved the regime, but merely bought it time.

Under the surface there were clearly seething hatreds. It was often claimed then, and has been even since, that the Christians and Muslims in Syria lived peacefully and ‘side by side’.

Actually, this was never true. Christians regarded the Muslims with caution; I remember going into a mosque that had been recommended by the guide book with my Christian host trailing behind me, and sitting on the carpet and talking to some people, who were Sunni Muslims, with my host translating. Afterwards he said to me that he, a Syrian national, had never been into a mosque before. That took me aback.

I remember asking on another occasion, meeting some Christian youth group full of pretty girls, what would happen if one of them fell in love with a Muslim, or vice versa. My question met with blank incomprehension.

It was simply not possible for a Christian to fall in love with a Muslim, let alone marry. The two communities led completely separate lives: a Christian girl would never meet, let alone socialise with, a Muslim boy.

Aleppo, that once lovely city, was divided into Christian and Muslim quarters; of course, people mingled in the souk, but they did not meet. A further division was the economic one: the Christians, as in Lebanon, were by and large better off than most other, though not all, confessional groups.

Again and again, I remember people explaining to me that President Assad was an Alawite, as if this fact explained everything. In fact, when you think about it, it does: the Assad family policy is the protection of the Alawite interest; the Alawites, if defeated, fear the terrible vengeance of the Sunni majority.

Civil wars happen for reasons that perhaps we English, who had our civil war back in the seventeenth century, have forgotten. But when one thinks of Northern Ireland, or Bosnia or even Belgium, one remembers that sectarian conflict has not been eradicated from Europe.

The hatred and fear of the other is always there: though in the case of Syria, the hatred is not between Christians and Muslims as such, but between Sunni Muslim and the Alawite sect with its Shia allies, a hatred that runs like a faultline throughout the greater Middle East.

And thus we come back to the Franciscan ideal, which inspires the 27 friars working in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, where among other things they run reception centres for refugees.

While I am well aware that sectarianism has long been a scar on the Body of Christ, the Church, it is good to know that the example of Saint Francis – the best Christian who ever lived, so perfectly was he conformed to Christ, even bearing His wounds – lives on.

Saint Francis loved everyone, and the presence of the friars in the land of conflict is a clue to the only way this conflict can end: through love and forgiveness.

All warring parties in Syria need to discover the concept and the practice of universal charity. We all do. The alternative – love your friends, hate your enemies – which is the creed of ISIS and the Assad regime – is so horrible, and its ghastly fruits so evident, that it acts as a sort of anti-Gospel.

The Devil is certainly very active in Syria at present, and it is a terrible sight. But so is Christ, in His Body, the Church: may people look to the Church, see love in action, and be converted.