Cathal Barry speaks with a bishop working to safeguard the presence of Christians in the Middle East
How does one minister to a community ravaged by war and forced to flee their country in fear of persecution? Syrian Antoine Audo SJ, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo and President of Caritas Syria, is perfectly placed to address such a question.
“I can’t tell my people not to go, to stay. I can’t say it. I respect their freedom. But by my example, by the way I live my life, by the way I serve, I do what I can do encourage them to stay. It’s not easy, but this is our situation,” he told The Irish Catholic.
“We have hope, of course, but the majority of Christians have lost confidence in their country. All those who can emigrate do so,” he said.
Bishop Audo, who has led the Church in Aleppo for 25 years, has seen his flock shrink since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.
According to Caritas Caritas Internationalis, a confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service organisations operating in over 200 countries and territories, almost seven million people in Syria need assistance, while four million people fleeing the conflict have been internally displaced. The agency also notes that more than 1.7 million people are refugees in neighbouring countries.
“For us as a Church, as Christians, it’s really a dramatic situation. For the first time we are witnessing that Syria is becoming a country without Christians. All of our history is being destroyed. It’s very sad for us,” he said.
Despite this, Bishop Audo is adamant that the Christian community there will “continue to celebrate our faith”.
“We have Mass every day but I have to remark that the numbers attending are diminishing. Before the conflict the numbers were plentiful but a great deal has changed since,” the bishop said.
“As bishop, I do what I can to continue to serve and support the families who are waiting for peace but they are becoming impatient. We want peace.”
Bishop Audo is convinced that “because the war in Syria began with an international decision, it can only stop with an international decision”.
“Stop firing, stop selling arms,” he pleaded.
“We don’t want a military solution, we want a political solution. At international level, everybody has a responsibly to do what they can to realise peace.”
Since the beginning of the war, Aleppo has been a battle ground and remains a city of enormous strategic importance.
According to reports, more than 3,000 people have been killed in Aleppo province over the past year. In April, water to those remaining in the city was cut off. Aid is sporadic and inadequate and the fighting continues.
As president of Caritas Syria, Bishop Audo understands the challenge of delivering impartial assistance.
In Syria, Caritas is operating in six regions: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, the coastal region, Djézireh and Horan.
The main aim of the mission is to offer food aid and rental assistance, as the war has deprived most Syrians of all sources of income.
Another vital aspect of the Caritas mission is provision of medical support and distribution of non-food aid, such as blankets, clothing and other items as required.
“It’s a dramatic situation,” Bishop Audo acknowledges.
“When I walk the streets in Aleppo, I see around me a different kind of poverty. It’s a completely new vision of the city compared to the past.
“Everybody has become poor as a result of the war, even the middle classes. The middle class have become poor. The poor have become miserable,” he said.
To help combat such a crisis, Bishop Audo said Caritas was working “closely” with Trócaire, the official overseas development agency of the Church in Ireland, to implement different projects in Syria.
“Trócaire is supporting us with the food and shelter programmes because we have huge needs now. It is also assisting in a training programme for our staff. Humanitarian work requires a professional education and Trócaire is supporting us in that,” Bishop Audo said.
He articulates a sombre message too about the crippling fear Syrians are forced to battle with on a daily basis.
“For the past three years the people of Aleppo have been living in fear and in danger. We don’t have any security. We live in constant threat of attack.
“There have been so many victims and Caritas is working to support them,” he said.
Aside from tangible support through aid provided by agencies such as Trócaire and Caritas, Bishop Audo also acknowledged the need for emotional support for the suffering people of Syria, particularly through prayer.
The bishop recalled the “impressive” prayer vigil for peace hosted by Pope Francis in St Peter’s Square at the Vatican on the evening of September 7, days before US lawmakers voted on President Barack Obama’s proposal for a military attack on Syria.
On that occasion, “prayer proved more powerful than arms”, the bishop said.
Aside from this gesture, Bishop Audo acknowledged the Pope has “done a great deal” more for Syria.
According to the bishop, Pope Francis instils “courage and confidence” in the people of Syria when he refers to the country as “beloved”. It’s a “deep and personal expression” that the bishop has personally thanked him for.
Bishop Audo is similarly thankful for the Pope’s regular statements that he “cannot imagine a Middle East without the presence of Christians”.
“I hope the Pope’s message about the importance of the presence of Christians in the Middle East will be listened to. As Christians, our roots are in the Middle East. It’s very important that this presence continues,” he said.