Syria 04.08.2015

Patriarch Gregory III Laham recently visited the international headquarters of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). in Königstein. He reports on his encounters with people who have lost everything.

When Patriarch Gregory III walks in the streets of Damascus in the late evening, people ask: “Has he no fear?” But the 81-year-old head of the Melkite Greek-Catholic Church is tireless in his visits to those who have lost close relatives through war and terror. He goes into the homes of the families, comforts them, prays with them and tries to help them. In so doing, he hears countless stories of tragic blows of fate, but also stories of great faith. Now the Church leader has shared some of these stories with the Catholic pastoral charity ACN.

“Once in Damascus, a father and his daughter were killed on the same day. In their memory, the faithful created an image that made a great impression on me. Below, on Earth, the two are depicted as they appeared during their earthly life. But in the upper part of the picture, Jesus and many angels are shown, and here the two are depicted after their transfiguration in Heaven. The faith is so strong that a true transfiguration can be felt, and the people say: ‘Here on Earth we are suffering and we are sometimes in despair, but up in Heaven we will be different people’. To be with our people in Syria is to enter a school of faith,” the Patriarch movingly explains.

He has often been a witness to this inner transfiguration. Once he had to give a mother the news that her kidnapped son had been murdered. He did not know how he should bring this news. When he came to the family’s home, they all said the Lord’s Prayer together. After they spoke the words: “Thy Will be done”, he was silent. The mother understood immediately what had happened. She embraced the Patriarch. “I was able to bring her the news in a spiritual way, and for her my presence meant the presence of the Church, of the Faith. In that light, this moment was transformed.” A man who had lost his wife, his three children and his father, all in one day, said to the Patriarch: “I have lost everything, I am alone, but God is with me. Now I am really living my Christianity!” In situations of this kind, the faithful truly experience the Church as their family.

The Patriarch has especially vivid memories of the great Easter Monday procession. 250 boy scouts were playing music, and more and more people were coming out onto their balconies or into the streets and joining the procession; children came running to be blessed by the Patriarch, and even veiled Muslim women kissed his cross. On the return route, a rocket landed on a roof some fifty metres distant. Panic broke out. Some of the men wanted to rush the Patriarch away in a car, but he refused. He stayed with the people in his full regalia and with his shepherd’s crook. Miraculously, the rocket caused almost no damage. Gregory III explained to his flock why it is that such things sometimes occur. He said: “When nothing happens, we often put it down to our own strength and we do not think of God. Now, if the rocket had caused damage during the procession, the people would perhaps have blamed God for allowing it to happen, and at any rate they would have criticised the priests and the Patriarch for permitting the procession to take place at all. But in fact the danger was there, and hundreds of people saw it, but God protected us. We are in God’s hands from day to day. Danger is there, but we are protected. There are so many stories I could tell you!”

Filled with conviction, the Patriarch says: “We experience miracles from day to day.” Once he visited a family whose house wall had been badly damaged by a rocket. But the image of the Madonna that hung on the wall had remained intact. “I explained to the people, this is not because Mary was so egoistical that she only preserved her own picture. It was meant to show that the Mother of God is with us, also in these difficult times.”

In spite of all the evil and suffering that has been caused to the people in Syria, Patriarch Gregory III does not like to hear the word “enemy”. “One can say that somebody is a murderer. That is an objective fact when a person has killed another person. In doing so, he has caused you hurt.  But when you speak of ‘enemies’, you are expressing your own inner feelings. It is something that is within you yourself rather than in him.” He even goes so far as to say: “ISIS and the bandits are people who need our love. I call on them to follow the path of resurrection together with us!”

Nevertheless, precisely the terrible reports from Iraq have put the people in Syria in a state of fear and horror. More and more are fleeing abroad. “The war had caused many to flee. About half of the population are in flight. But the events in Iraq were a shock that caused the tidal wave to grow even greater. The people are frightened of the advancing terror. But on the other hand there are also many who remain here and rebuild their lives. The churches are full, there is youth work, there are processions, ceremonies, and children are going to school.” For the Patriarch himself, leaving would be unthinkable: “We shepherds will remain with our flock, to die for them and with them. We will stay so that the people can have life.”  

The Patriarch does not switch off his telephone, even at night. Those seeking help can reach him around the clock. When something happens somewhere, he receives a call requesting him to contact the authorities or to provide other assistance. But some, in despair and sorrow, simply seek his comfort and ask him for a prayer. “We must continue on this path. The people have trust in us. We must be there, and show ourselves worthy of this trust. We must maintain our service of love and devotion. But the tragedy is greater than we are. Thank God, ACN is a great help to us.”

Since the beginning of the civil war in March 2011, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has supported pastoral and humanitarian aid projects in Syria to a value of 6.9 million euros. Despite the most adverse circumstances, ACN’s ecclesiastical project partners remain with their flocks even today. As well as initiatives inside Syria, projects in aid of Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon have also been funded.

Eva-Maria Kolmann.