Bishops from two Christian rites in Syria have spoken out in the past week about the desperate situation in the country as more and more people flee the destruction of a senseless war.

Both Christian leaders are based in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and located in the north-west of the country near the border with Turkey. Aleppo has long been home to a large Christian minority, which has been dramatically reduced during nearly five years of civil war.

‘International commercial interests are in play’

Addressing a media conference in Rome sponsored by the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need and the Foreign Press Association, Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo said there were still Christians “determined to stay on in Syria and continue to give our witness.”

But he acknowledged that many were caught up in the mass exodus of the last few weeks spurred by the welcome shown by some European countries. Marta Petrosillo of ACN reports:

“All those who were able to leave have already left, while the others are still trying to leave the country,” [said Bishop Audo]. “Above all our young men, who fear being called up for military service and don’t want to take part in a senseless war that has brought nothing but destruction.”

Most first head for Turkey, where they then try to board vessels for Greece or Italy. “And so many of them have met their deaths at sea,” the bishop added.

He estimated that that Aleppo’s pre-war Christian population of 150,000 had declined to less than 50,000, and it was possible that the Christian community might disappear altogether from the city. Conditions were desperate:

“The rich have gone, the middle classes have become poor and the poor have become destitute. More than 80 percent of the population is now unemployed,” said the prelate. Moreover, for over two months now, the city has been without water and electricity.

“One of our churches has a well in its grounds, and we try to distribute water to as many people as possible. On every street you can see children and youngsters carrying empty bottles, searching for water.”

Meanwhile, bombs continue to fall every day. Said the bishop: “One part of the city is controlled by the government, while the rest is in the hands of fundamentalist groups who are constantly attacking the area controlled by the Syrian army—and that’s where the majority of the Christians live. The situation in Aleppo is one of the most critical in Syria, because we are just 25 miles from the border with Turkey, which is continuing to arm and welcome the fundamentalists.”

Bishop Audo charged that the protracted nature of the Syrian conflict is a reflection of a tangle of international interests. He said: “We have been waiting for years for a political solution, for some glimmer of hope that the war might end. But there seems to be a desire on the part of the international community to see the war continue—just as was the case in Iraq and Libya.

“It is a determination linked to strategic interests in the Middle East region; as Pope Francis has reminded us more than once, commercial interests linked to the arms trade are in play.”

‘Help from Western Christians expected in vain’

Bishop Audo’s fears for the extinction of Christianity in the region were echoed a few days earlier by Melkite Archbishop, Metropolitan Jean-Clément Jeanbart in a letter to the wider Church. Marking the 20th anniversary of his appointment to the Diocese of Aleppo the archbishop wrote:

It has been 20 years, exactly. On Sept. 16, 1995, the Church saw fit to appoint me to lead the Diocese of Aleppo. It was a solemn day in my life; even as the celebrations surrounding an episcopal nomination were taking place and the festive atmosphere all around pushed all worries aside, I foresaw already, without saying a word, all the efforts and hard work that this responsibility would call on me for I didn’t know how many years.

Today, as I am writing these lines, bombs are raining down on the residential neighborhoods of the city. There may be as many as 60 dead and 300 wounded. The people are bewildered; they don’t know where to find shelter. Three months ago I had to move out of the archdiocesan residence, after it was heavily damaged in a bombing raid.

The residents of this hardworking city, who were pretty well off now find themselves in a miserable state, after four years of this unjust, barbaric and destructive war. They are without work, without resources, without security, without water, without electricity, deprived of all hoped-for pity, and help from Western Christians expected in vain.

It is four years ago today that my mission changed directions. Comforting the people and encouraging them to persevere has become an indispensable effort. Helping the faithful in their distress has become a priority for me. At the end of my career, because of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, I have been given a new mandate, with an uncertain outcome and uncertain guidance.

The latest scourge that is beating us down today is the exodus of Christians, which is a form of deportation, condemning our faithful to a humiliating exile and our 200 year-old Church to a deadly drying up. Our attackers have done everything to bring this about. Firstly, they have terrorized the people in the city; next they destroyed factories, all commerce, institutions and homes, forcing people to leave and try to make a living elsewhere. They finally made this desertion possible by allowing smugglers to organize massive convoys heading for the West. What a tragedy!

The phenomenon is very disconcerting—it appears to be apocalyptic and fatal for our Christian communities in the Levant. But I, like many pastors of the people of God in Syria, remain confident because we believe in Him who has promised to remain with those who are His.

On this anniversary of my episcopate, I fervently wish that you join me in asking the Lord to protect the faithful He is given into my care, so that this Church that is two millennia old, of which I am in charge, can continue its prophetic presence in this beloved country. They are waging war on us, but we want to make peace. They seek to destroy; we seek to build. They are trying to exile us; we are fighting to stay put. In brief, all that we await is peace and we want to Build to Stay.

Source: Aid to the Church in Need

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet