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Bishop of Aleppo: The city I love is in ruins

By on Thursday, 18 October 2012

Bishop Audo pictured in 2008 (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

Bishop Audo pictured in 2008 (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)

The Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Aleppo, Syria, has said he is determined to stay with his suffering people even though his city is in ruins and many have already fled.

Bishop Antoine Audo told MPs, charity leaders and peers in the Houses of Parliament: “Aleppo, the city I love so much and where I have been bishop this past 20 years, is now devastated – much of it in ruins.”

Two brother bishops fled earlier this year but had since returned, Bishop Audo said.

He said: “Even with this violence, the bombing and snipers, we have decided to stay with our people. We don’t want to leave them alone. If I go out of the city for a time, the people will feel alone. We did not go to Lebanon to meet the Pope to tell him that we are in a dangerous situation. Instead we wrote the Pope a letter to ask for his support.”

Bishop Audo, 66, who was made Bishop of Aleppo in 1992, was speaking alongside Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, at a reception in Parliament in London.

The bishop warned the audience that Christianity in Syria could “go the way of Iraq” and be reduced to “a token few” faithful.

He said: “For the Church in every corner of the world, this would be a catastrophe because the Christians of Syria are themselves the direct successors to the Apostles Paul and Barnabas and others.”

If Christianity did decline, he said, “the impact will be felt far and wide. It will not just be a loss to the Christians, but it will be a loss to the Muslims.”

In Homs, he said, “all but a few of the faithful were forced to leave after a wave of persecution – all the churches desecrated”.

Bishop Audo painted a grim picture of life for Syrians in Aleppo. As president of Caritas Syria, he said, he co-ordinates emergency relief for tens of thousands of people.

“People, many of them Christians, have lost everything. In some areas like Midan they have fled their homes because of the threat of bombs, they have lost their livelihoods, schools, hospitals and other public services do not function. There is chaos. Eighty per cent of people have no job and have no option but to stay at home. Poverty is getting very serious especially with rising prices and no salaries. The face of the city has changed. There is no security, everything is dirty, there are difficulties in basic travel, no taxis, no buses.”

He said most of the wealthy people in the city had already fled. “Those who remain in Aleppo are only the poor families,” he said.

The reception was organised by Aid to the Church in Need and sponsored by Baroness Berridge, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom.

Below we publish the full text of Bishop Audo’s address at the Houses of Parliament on October 18, 2012.

I would like to thank you for your warm welcome and for the privilege of coming before you all today to give witness to the struggle of the people of Syria, especially over these past traumatic months.

If I may, I would like to start with some words of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. They come from his Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in Medio Oriente – the Church in the Middle East signed almost exactly one month ago during his visit to Lebanon.

He wrote: “Economic and political instability, a readiness on the part of some to manipulate others, and a defective understanding of religion help open the door to religious fundamentalism. This phenomenon afflicts all religious communities, and denies their long-standing tradition of coexistence. It wants to gain power, at times violently, over individual consciences, and over religion itself, for political reasons. I appeal urgently to all Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious leaders in the region to seek, by their example and by their teaching, to do everything in their power to eliminate this menace which indiscriminately and fatally affects believers of all religions. “To use the revealed word, the Sacred Scriptures or the name of God to justify our interests, our easy and convenient policies or our violence, is a very grave fault”.

Mindful of these powerful words from the Holy Father, I come before you today in an appeal for human rights, human rights for all. And in a culture such as mine where faith remains a strong if not the predominant force in life, I declare alongside the Pope that religious freedom is “the pinnacle of all other freedoms”.

It is against that backdrop that I come to bear testimony to the sufferings of so many of us in Syria. Even my journey here was not straightforward. I very nearly didn’t make it. I was forced to turn back on the road to the airport by cars which blocked the access. I considered taking a helicopter until I was told the price – all for a journey of only a few minutes. The road re-opened at the last minute and despite nearly being turned away at the airport entrance I boarded the plane which left a full 45 minutes early.

But this bizarre occurrence is as nothing compared to the experience we have been going through, especially over the past 18 months. For me the sound of bombs falling is all too common. I am not afraid. I have an inner calm that I am doing the right thing, that I am helping my people as best I can.

Aleppo, the city I love so much and where I have been bishop this past 20 years, is now devastated – much of it in ruins. And all of this destruction has taken place since the beginning of July. People have fled their homes – even my nephew had his front door smashed in – fortunately by then he had gone back to stay with his parents who live in a much safer place. As for me, I have to be careful walking around the city because of the risk of snipers and kindapping. People are worried for my safety. Two brother bishops in Aleppo have fled abroad. One of them had his home attacked twice. Both bishops have since returned to be in solidarity with their people. Even with this violence – bombing and snipers, we have decided to stay with our people. We don’t want to leave them alone. If I go out of the city for a time, the people will feel alone. We did not go to Lebanon to meet the Pope to tell him that we are in a dangerous situation. Instead we wrote the Pope a letter to ask for his support.

As President of Caritas Syria, I am co-ordinating emergency relief for tens of thousands of people desperately lacking food, medical care, and shelter. They, like all of us, are frightened. They do not know what the future will be. There is a big risk of emigration Organisations including Aid to the Church in Need have provided the help we so urgently need. People – many of them Christians have lost everything. In some areas like Midan They have fled their homes because of the threat of bombs, they have lost their livelihoods, schools, hospitals and other public services do not function. There is chaos. Eighty percent of people have no job and have no option but to stay at home. Poverty is getting very serious especially with rising prices and no salaries. The face of the city has changed. There is no security, everything is dirty, there are difficulties in basic travel, no taxis, no buses.

Of course in Syria, almost everybody has suffered in one way or another. The violence and hardship has been something experienced directly by themselves or by those very close to them. But for the Christians, the problems are uniquely serious. In the city of Homs, home to what was the country’s second largest Christian community all but a few of the faithful were forced to leave after a wave of persecution – all the churches desecrated.

The desire to emigrate is always on people’s minds, especially Christians. The majority of wealthy people have already left Aleppo for Lebanon to seek schools for their children. Those who remain in Aleppo are only the poor families. We are fearful that Christianity will decline and will lose their influence as it has done over the past decade in neighbouring Iraq. And for the Church in every corner of the world, this would be a catastrophe because the Christians of Syria are themselves the direct successors to the Apostles Paul and Barnabas and others. Ours is the Church of that early bishop from the beginning of the second century – Ignatius of Antioch – whose feast day falls this week. If Christians in my country were reduced to a token few, it would be disastrous because until now ours has been one of the last remaining strong Christian centres in the whole of the Middle East. And so I ask what is the future of Christianity in the Middle East now? As bishop, with the other bishops, we try with the universal Church to find the way towards a peaceful future, to find the way towards stability and the chance to rebuild our society. We seek as bishops to build bridges between different people fighting now. I think that everybody knows that Chrisitans do not have an interest in power. They have a significant presence in Syria and they are respected precisely because they are recognised as people who do not seek power for its own sake. For instance in this crisis a lot of refugees came into schools in the Christian areas of Aleppo and the Christians showed enormous generosity and compassion in serving those families. This response was appreciated by government and all those in authority because Christians showed their respect for the majority community. Aid to the Church in Need is supporting a programme in two schools near my bishopric for 100 families and six young Catholic priests are available every day to serve those families – education, medical care, food baskets, hot water so people can wash and have a shower. It is very deeply appreciated by all the Muslims in the community. the Christians are an example of solidarity even if they have different political convictions.

But there is a further dimension to the crisis, one which is of significance to people of all faiths and none.

If Christians in Syria go the way of Iraq and indeed decline, the impact will be felt far and wide. It will not just be a loss to the Christians, but it will be a loss to the Muslims. The Muslims need the presence of Christians as a safeguard to ensure their true identity is maintained. Christians are like them in so many ways and at the same time are yet different. Hence the Christians are well placed to help Muslims keep their bearings as a faith community centred around belief in one God and tolerance for others. We as Christians must In truth recognise our need for support from them. We are strengthened by the common values we share.

Christians too have a duty to stand up for faith and freedom. As Arab Christians we have a huge part to play in building bridges, in helping the poorest of the poor. We have an important cultural contribution to make.

As Pope Benedict stated in his exhortation on the Middle East: “As in the past when, as pioneers of the Arab renaissance, the [Christians] took full part in the cultural, economic and scientific life of the different cultures of the region, so too in our own day the Christians wish to share with Muslims their experiences and to make their specific contribution.”

As I come to a close, in making my appeal for peace and reconciliation, may I ask for your prayers, for your solidarity and your contribution to find the way for peace in our troubled land.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    “The bishop warned the audience (of parliamentarians) that Christianity in Syria could “go the way of Iraq” and be reduced to “a token few” faithful”.

    They don’t care.

  • Parasum

    So what do *we* do about it ? There is a problem – therefore, there must be a solution or two.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Beyond prayer, I can’t think.

  • Sweetjae

    Prayer must be accompanied by actions. England is a relic of the past, lost to a great Apostasy of protestantism. The U.S.A. Is the only country who has defended and has given supreme sacrifices even to people she doesn’t know. We liberated Europe and others as well from the oppression of their own fascist leaders.

    We don’t just watch from the sidelines and talk endlessly like the Europeans do.

  • http://reflectingbytheshore.blogspot.co.uk/ JI

    I do feel sorry for the bishop. Not only is his city being destroyed, but he’s speaking to an audience that hardly cares for the plight of Christians in Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East. It is no secret that the British government, along with their Sunni Arab allies, are working to oust Assad and supporting the rebels. Many of these ‘rebels’ are hardline jihadists who come from different parts of the world including Britain.

    The BBC is busy propagandizing on a daily basis about the ‘humanitarian’ situation in Syria. The aim, of course, is to justify regime change and prepare the public for a possible future military intervention in Syria.The bishop is right. Syria may well go the way of Iraq, and that would be tragic.

  • JabbaPapa

    A prime example of how and why the US propaganda machine is so much more pervasive and perverted than the Soviet propaganda ever could be…

  • J G

     Do you speak Russian? No? You’re welcome.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Agreed, Jabba. How many men and women has Britain lost in Iraq and Afghanistan? For the edification of the individual above whose post you responded to, the very first Allied soldiers ashore in Iraq were British, and Schwarzkopf has since written that the Second Iraq War could not have been won without the British. 

    Our Yankee friends need to pull their heads out of their backsides sometimes.

  • Alasdair Frew-Bell

    Aleppo is a wonderful city. Its destruction by devilish forces who care nothing for humanity is a true war crime. Syria was not democratic in the western sense but it was home to a unique levantine form of religious tolerance. Now that is being destroyed along with the classical heritage and heritage of its Muslim and Christian citizens. His Excellency is a brave man. May God give him strength and endurance at this time. The Near East must retain its Christians. In exile the Christianity may remain but the human cultural context which fostered and animated that faith may well not. KYRIE ELEISON. يا رب ارحم.

  • Sweetjae

    Without the U.S. you’ll be speaking German or Russian, take your pick. You got some audacity I’ll give you that.

  • Sweetjae

    Hahahaha! This is one of the most lame statement I heard in years! Though we appreciate your participation, I give you that.

  • JabbaPapa

    Without the UK, you’d be speaking Apache, Navajo, Spanish, Portuguese, or French.

    /roll-eyes/

  • JabbaPapa

    Given that my mother was born in a place that is now in Russia pursuant to its invasion and annexation during WW2, your clichéd rhetorical question is more inept than usual…

  • Sweetjae

    Are you rewriting history by wishful thinking? We beat all these guys fair and square without any help from anybody, lol. 

  • Sweetjae

    Just can’t refute it, Jabba. Though I grant your ungrateful attitude.

  • Sweetjae

    In fact we beat you too 300 years ago, retreated back to the great cold north artic now called Canada and the rest back to England.

  • JabbaPapa

    Your skills at missing the point are phenomenal.

  • JabbaPapa

    Just can’t refute it, Jabba

    I just did, you nincompoop.

  • Cal

     Russia and Germany today are better societies than in England and the US. Of course not knowing the truth you will not believe this

  • Carver

     and look at the USA today a place where anything bad is acceptable. A terrible society.

  • JabbaPapa

    I’m a half Finn, half Brit.

    The Finns defeated the Russians with no outside help whatsoever during the Winter War ; the Battle of Britain was another independent victory.

    I have nothing at all to be grateful for, your ridiculous jingoism notwithstanding.

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal

    THE WAY OF CHRIST THE LORD IS THE ONLY TRUE AND RIGHT WAY, THE WAY MOST PLEASING TO THE LORD, “LOVE YOUR ENEMIES, PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU…” AND THUS BE PERFECT CHILDREN OF OUR FATHER IN HEAVEN; LET US BE SUCH DOING WHAT THE LORD HAS TOLD US IN THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH. THE LORD HAS GIVEN US EXAMPLE ALSO IN THIS.

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal

    AS LONG AS THE U.S. (AND INDEED ALL THE CHRISTIAN PEOPLE AS A UNITED PEOPLE IN THE LORD) IS NOT ACTING IN TUNE WITH THE MIND OF THE LORD AS CLEARLY EXPRESSED BY HIM IN HIS  WORD AND EXAMPLE, WE ARE ONLY CHRISTIAN IN NAME AND WE GET WHAT WE DESERVE….SUFFER FROM ETERNAL  ILLUSION.

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal

     ARROGANCE OF ILLUSION AND THE PASSING POWER  AND GLORY OF THE SAME!

  • Fr. Thomas Poovathinkal

    JESUS LORD, MY GOD, PLEASE GRANT TO ALL  OF US WHO GO BY THE NAME OF CHRISTIAN  AND ESPECIALLY SO TO OUR LEADERS : THE BISHOPS OF ALL THE CHURCHES, THE GRACE TO FOLLOW YOU IN THE SPIRIT OF TRUTH, LOVING OUR ENEMIES AND PERSECUTORS  AND PRAYING FOR THEM AS YOU YOURSELF GAVE US THE EXAMPLE, FOR YOU ARE THE VIRTUOUS CIRCLE AND NOT A VICIOUS ONE; LORD YOU ARE OUR ONLY SAVIOR.

    LOVE INCARNATE, HAVE MERCY US US SINNERS FOR OUR WAYS ARE DEVIOUS AND OUR SOULS ARE CORRUPT. HELP US O LORD TO FOLLOW YOUR EXAMPLE AND THUS  BE LIKE YOU. THANK YOU JESUS, MY LORD, MY LOVE.

  • Sweetjae

    Because your point is pointless.

  • Sweetjae

    Yah right, why dont you live there?

  • Sweetjae

    Yah right…..envy anyone?

  • Margaret

    We could END the ILLEGAL war in Iraq.  What a concept.

  • Paula

    Unfortunately, while you quote WW2 history, you seem to need a lesson in modern history.  It has been through America’s meddling and illegal war in Iraq, that the situation for all not just Christians has become dangerous and untenable.  The invasion of Iraq can never be justified and the blood of the dead will always be on America’s hands.  No amount of delusory self belief can ever wash it off.