Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart celebrating his 20 anniversary as Bishop of Aleppo writes a moving testimony of his fight for his faithful to stay in Syria.
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 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.
A few days later, the warm and enthusiastic welcome with which the faithful of Aleppo, turning out in great numbers, awaited my arrival in the city, moved me profoundly and confirmed my commitment to dedicate myself wholly to serving them.
The Diocese of Aleppo is one of the oldest Sees of the universal Church. It already was established in the third century and in 325 its archbishop participate in the Council of Nicea. In both the ancient and recent history of the Middle East this active and prosperous community was a center of Christian radiance in the region. It is a reason to be really proud and it has always moved me, giving me a strong attachment to the local faithful past and present and lending an extra dose of enthusiasm to the exercise of my episcopal ministry.
In fact, during all these years of intense efforts, I have been able to accomplish more than I could have hoped! It has been my joy to ordain ten priests and build three new churches, while restoring the fragile, two centuries-old archdiocesan headquarters. Three classic residences dating back to the 17the century were restored to their former glory to house various diocesan initiatives. Two new schools and four new institutes saw the light of day during those years blessed by the Lord!
Housing projects gave more than 200 couples the opportunity to get married and to many more the hope to do so, as they awaited the completion of the work—work now halted by this ugly war. Then there was the creation of student residences, vacation homes for young people, a congress hall and all kinds of spaces for cultural events and community gathering. I stop here to thank God for all the graces granted and of which it is not useful to speak here.
Today, at the very moment that 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 the bombing. I never thought that what is happening to our city could ever be the case.
Today, Aleppo is a wounded city in the full sense of the word. All socio-economic, artistic and intellectual activities that were its joy have been brought to a halt; at the same time, the city’s archeological riches and ancient patrimony, our source of pride, have been badly damaged.
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 sympathy that they had hoped-for and help they expected in vain from Western Christians. Western governments appear to be either indifferent or unjust, not to say perverted by the lure of dirty money, the mortal enemy of all fairness and justice.
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. I had imagined by now to have retired in all peace and tranquility!
When all is said and done, these last three years I had to forget that I was 70 years-old and to run to wherever I could in over to lighten the load that is weighing down my beloved people: with financial support for those left without any means; scholarships; food supplies; medical care; fuel to make it through the winter months; shelter for the displaced; repair of damaged homes; and lastly the provision of water to families and the installation of small water tanks in poorest households. My co-workers and I have mobilized lately to become alert watchdogs, to make sure the needs of the faithful of whom we are in charge are met.
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— the exodus 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.
Metropolitan Jean-Clément Jeanbart is the Aleppo’s Melkite Archbishop