Father Ibrahim Alsabagh, who has been the parish priest in Aleppo since 2014, speaks about the apocalyptic situation in which Syria plunges ten years after the start of the war, and about the irreplaceable role of the Church.
Is fighting in Syria still going on – four years after the end of the Battle of Aleppo?
The war is not over. We are witnessing an arms race – faster than ever. Our land is full of missiles and weapons. In Idlib, in the north, where the situation is still tense, military groups are said to be increasingly organized and armed. Tensions also continue in the south with missiles from our neighbours attacking the Iranian army. The war is still raging on our land; it has an international dimension and is becoming more and more cruel.
How advanced is the process of rebuilding of Aleppo?
We started the reconstruction of damaged houses and launched microeconomic projects. However, the situation has returned to a critical state, like before 2016. We are witnessing a “hunger war”.
How is it possible?
The sanctions affect the poorest part of the population. The main phenomenon of the inflation continues with the collapse of the Syrian pound, while workers’ wages remain the same. The price of food is rising every hour. People are cold, there is no light, electricity is available one hour a day. There is also very little fuel and you have to queue for miles to the gas stations to get it.
What is the general mood of the public?
The greatest threat to the people of Aleppo is despair. It is terrifying to lose hope that the crisis will end and that life will preserve dignity again. I did not think that I would meet a patient refusing hospital treatment, preferring to return home to die, or a woman who would rather cease to exist than live. I have heard many words of despair lately, I have never heard them before.
A lot of Christians left in the first years of the war. Have any of them come back?
When I came to Aleppo at the end of 2014, two-thirds of the population and an equal percentage of Christians left the country. In 2017, about 50 Christian families returned, but another 50 emigrated. Young people returned from Lebanon last year because of the crisis there. But those who return, face nothing but difficulties, because the crisis is getting worse every day.
Is the situation in Aleppo the same as in the rest of the country?
The situation is more difficult here. During the war, armed groups took over 60% of the city, which was largely destroyed. In the country’s former economic capital hundreds of businesses were destroyed and their equipment was plundered. Despite government efforts, the city of Aleppo fails to return to its glorious past and remains paralyzed.
Which members of the society are suffering the most?
Suffering is our daily bread on these very cold days. Fathers do not know where to get the money for bread for their children. The women have become depressed and have cardiac problems. The crisis is affecting many young people; their childhood had already been stolen by the war. How much courage, strength and perseverance do you need today to get an education and a profession? These young people do not have any means to build their lives, their future. The crisis affects children who do not have the opportunity to develop physically or mentally – children growing up in families marked by the atmosphere of sadness, despair, insecurity and the lack of confidence that they will have enough to eat tomorrow. The crisis is affecting education, as parents are unable to buy school supplies, and often cannot even get clothes or shoes to send their children to school. The crisis is also affecting the elderly, the weakest in our society. They often have several diseases and are unable to work due to their disabilities. They have no income or financial security.
How is God’s presence manifested in such a dark reality?
We experience the Divine Presence every moment. The Good Shepherd, with all his strength, is present in our difficulties. We touch Him with our hands and see Him with our eyes. In difficulties, he guides and gives directions. We are not exaggerating when we say that we live witnessing miracles, we can see them in every moment of our life. The Church – the tender hand of the Risen Lord – does much good. The Lord is in charge of everything. In this experience of God’s Providence, there is the Transfiguration of the Lord, which is reminiscent of the experience on Mount Tabor, on the Cross and in His revelation after the resurrection. We feel wrapped in His tenderness, like disciples, shrouded in his eternal light. It is an experience of His essence, the nature of God, which is love and tenderness. Our experience is a revelation of how God loves us and cares for each of us.
What does this spiritual experience teach you, Father?
Christ’s presence transforms useless suffering into redemptive one. He is the model for us in His redemptive suffering. With faith in our hearts and with the hope that comes from Him, we respond with love to His unconditional love. The path of our suffering thus becomes the path of the cross experienced with all the intensity. This is true of the various “stations”. During the ten years of the war, we have experienced dozens of very different stations. This latest station of our life experience, is an inhumane stage that we may call the “starvation and imprisonment stage”.
Why “the imprisonment stage”?
Because we are trapped and isolated from the rest of the world. The sanctions inhumanly prevent us not only from having daily bread, but also air to breathe. These constraining “walls” will always be tighter – due to banking restrictions, the Lebanon crisis, health restrictions related to Covid-19, preventing us not only from leaving the country but also, from visiting our families in the city.
Are your health care institutions sufficient for the population?
During many years of war, city hospitals were heavily bombed. Many devices and equipment do not work due to the sanctions that prevent their maintenance and the possibility of importing spare parts from abroad. In this terrible situation, Covid-19 appeared, on the structures that were destroyed with deficiencies in equipment – in a country that was divided and poverty-stricken. How much suffering have we seen? How many patients have died at home from the corona virus? How many of those who survived suffer from the ailments of the body, marked by the aftermath of the pandemic?
How do Christian and Muslim people coexist?
Whether before the crisis or today, this coexistence is peaceful. The suffering of the crisis has made some Muslims perceive reality differently now. Moreover, the crisis has brought more people who have deviated from their religion, and set out on the road in search of the truth, away from a god who causes war and hatred, and moving closer to the door of the Church, with curiosity or spiritual desire, seeking Christ, the Prince of peace.
What are the consequences of the endless crisis for the soul of the Syrian society?
Only God knows the depth of the wounds in souls and bodies caused by this crisis and reflected on the face of every Syrian. The medicine that we – poor human beings can offer is the only thing we have: “we have no silver or gold,” but we have Christ. It is the face of God whose essence is love. There is no other way than tenderness, which appears as a humble service of washing the feet not only of Christian people, our faithful ones, but of every man regarded as our neighbour, because he is our brother. Each Way of the Cross has the Resurrection as the last station, which is the victory of Love over hatred, Peace over war.
Propos recueillis par Jean-Marie Dumont
FAMILLECHRETIENNE.FR • N°2254 • SEMAINE DU 27 MARS AU 2 AVRIL 2021