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.