By Carlo Giorgi
“Does the Christian presence in Syria have a future? If things continue this way, if the international community does not really decide to change its policy, to abandon the logic of earning and interests, I expect that soon there will be a symbolic presence of Christians in the country. A little like that of the Christians in the Holy Land, who today are a derisory percentage, perhaps 1 per cent. And you can go to Syria in the same way that you go to the zoo: to admire a species in danger of extinction.”
The words of Father Jihad Youssef, of the monastic community of Mar Musa in Syria, who on Saturday 24th October took part in Rome in the Day of the associations for the Holy Land, have a bitter ring to them. Before a very attentive audience, the religious spoke about the life of his community in these years of way, sharing impressions, fears and hopes for the future of Arab Christians.
In December 2013, the region where our monastery is, near the city of Nebeq, was set alight by a fierce battle,” Father Jihad said. “It was a period of great fear. We would celebrate Mass and pray, thinking that at any time a missile could have fallen on our heads. The constant thought was: what is the sense in staying here? This way in the community, we concretely experienced the trial of the faith. We truly saw that our faith can really support us, or better, is we really have faith. Do we really believe in God? Is God there? And if he is, what is he doing whilst we are here under the bombs? While children, women and men are leaving their homes… While the brothers, Cain and Abel, are killing each other? Is God sleeping as Cain kills Abel? It was as if someone was whispering to us: “You are Christians… and where is your God?” After that ordeal, can we still believe? Yes, we still believe. But every morning, every time the sun rises, we have to go back and decide to believe. And we have decided to stay, despite the danger. We did not stay to become martyrs at any cost; we stayed in solidarity with everyone. After this decision, we saw gratitude in the eyes of our parishioners in Nebeq, but also in those of many Muslims in the city. For them our presence is a sign of hope. Both the Christians and the Muslims in Nebeq say “Our monks and our monastery” when they talk about us.”
A Christian community of 3-4,000 people lives in Nebeq, a small city of 50,000 inhabitants. The community of Mar Musa, to meet the needs of the poorest, with the help of three European Catholic organizations, has restored 63 homes of Christian and Muslim families. There are many needs: Nebeq stands at more than 4,000 feet above sea level and it is cold in the winter, with the water freezing every night. Gas oil is needed to heat the homes, but the fuel, because of the war, is expensive and rare. None of the Christians of Nebeq, despite everything, has left the city in these years.
“Stay or leave? What should the Christians of Syria do?” Father Jihad wonders. “Before, I was of the opinion that we, the Christians, should stay, because the Middle East must not lose its Christians. But when I feared for my life and for the community, I understood those who leave their home. And where they find the strength to leave everything: their memories, their childhood, their beloved buried here and the ones still alive. I no longer judge anyone and I tell nobody anymore to stay if they do not want to stay. On the contrary, we have to help those who want to leave to flee. And decently: not by sea, not on foot to be stopped at the frontier by barbed wire or bullets. And then help those who want to stay to remain, in the first place with prayer, of course. Then with material aid.”
“Those who stay, though, have a vocation. What is this vocation?” continued Father Jihad. “You know that St. Francis went to meet Sultan el Khamil. And when he returned, he told the friars: ‘Go to the Saracens, submit to every creature humbly professing that you are Christians.’ He did not say to proselytizse, but to speak when the Holy Spirit suggests. We of Mar Musa are consecrated to the love of Jesus Christ for everyone, but in particular for Muslims and Islam. Dialogue for us does not mean getting a number of people to convert or convincing them that they are wrong and we are right. Dialogue, on the other hand, means creating bridges, friendship and harmony. Announcing to everyone that living in different ways is possible and it is also something beautiful. The Letter to the Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered. So we too, from the suffering we have lived through in these years of war, if we have really opened up to the grace of God that we received at baptism, we can decide to stay in Syria and discover our vocation: to love and pray for the Muslim world, for the Muslims who are killing each other and that hate each other. Not many know that in Syria the victims of the Islamic State (Isis) are more numerous amongst the Muslims than amongst the Christians. Of course, if a Christian ends up in the hands of Isis, it is the end, but it is also the end for a sheikh or an imam who does not think the way they do.”