Fr Ibrahim talks about Aleppo Christians and the metropolis’s slow revival after being "paralysed" by war
by Dario Salvi

Once an industrial hub that generated 60 per cent of Syria’s output, Aleppo now only consumes. Security remains an issue, as does the presence of sleeper cells. A generation of children has been “destroyed” by the war. For every young man in the city there are 12 young women. Dialogue with islam continues over identity, charity and testimony.

Florence (AsiaNews) – Fr Ibrahim Alsabagh, a 44-year-old Franciscan, is the parish priest and custodian of the Aleppo Latin Parish. He is currently in Italy for a series of conferences, and spoke to AsiaNews about the city.

Before the war, Aleppo "was a metropolis that generated about 60 per cent of Syria’s industrial output", serving as the country’s economic and commercial capital. Now instead it is "paralysed and does not produce even a kilo of tomatoes”. It is "only a great consumer". The government is not in a position to start reconstruction projects and the issue of security remains "because of the presence of [terrorist] sleeper cells, ready to strike."

Still, he remains hopeful, and talks about some projects by the Christian community to rebuild a "future" of peace and coexistence in the city and country.

For Fr Ibrahim, one of the main problems is "a generation of children destroyed by the war. They are restless, agitated, and resist any educational project. They show signs of violence; their games often are like acts of war, not to mention their use of offensive words."

Unfortunately, "violence is part of the every day life that went from the street into the home. The main challenge is to rebuild the children’s personality. This issue is not just about schooling, but includes psychological support and involves the Church and the parish with targeted activities."

Even though the ceasefire reached last December marked the end of the open conflict and the division of the city into two areas, some neighbourhoods are still getting shelled.

In addition, some extremist groups are present with sleeper cells that are ready to strike. The possibility of terrorist attacks is "always present" even though "we have had no serious acts of violence".

"The fundamentalist ideology has put down roots in the minds of a part of the population thanks to ignorance, poverty, and a desire to vengeance,” the clergyman explained.

“We hope that terrorism will remain only a latent fear and not lead to actual actions against a civilian population that has begun living and hoping again.”

Fr Ibrahim talks about the last three years of the war, cold in winter and heat in summer, rockets falling everywhere, one hitting the church during a celebration.

"Miraculously, the bomb did not explode,” he said. “It could have been a massacre with dozens of casualties, but we only got some people slightly injured.”

One of the problems that remain is "the chronic shortage of water". Recently, he said, "I set a record: I showered with only a quarter of a bottle of water."

Water shortages are linked to periodic outbreaks of intestinal infections, but power supplies have improved recently, so we got a few hours of electricity for the Muslim celebration of ʿīd. After so long, families were able to iron clothes again, use the washing machine ... small things from a time long forgotten.”

Aleppo faces many challenges in an "unstable society, where seniors are abandoned to their fate and die alone because no one takes care of them. Then there are the widows, young and lonely mothers with children because the men have disappeared; those who have not died in the war but have escaped abroad to avoid compulsory military service.

“On the one hand, it is important to defend the family, the homeland, but it is also understandable that a young man may not want to die. Many are in Lebanon or Jordan, looking for any job to survive. For every young man, there are 12 young women, a huge disproportion."

Faced with ever growing needs, the local Church has started several successful projects in recent months, from street cleaning to helping young couples, from food parcels to power supplies, from summer camps for hundreds of children to help covering healthcare expenses and medicines, visits, examinations, and care. "All these are things that people cannot afford," Fr Ibrahim said.

"So far, we have given 250 people an opportunity to start a small business – carpentry, pastry, garments, small shops – to help support their family. Everyone, after coming up with a business plan, gets 1,000 to 1,500 euros to start a business. Another 300 people are waiting for an answer after submitting their plan."

One of the things that the priest feels strongly about is support for young couples who married in war time. "To date, we are talking about 940 Christian families of all denominations,” he said. “This project was hard but very satisfying”. Even Muslim families got interested in it.

In fact, the challenge of interfaith dialogue and encounter with Islam plays out in the areas of charity and every day action, transcending speeches and superficial issues.

"The weight of fundamentalism has brought us closer together. We meet more often. There are not only compromises but also sincere talks.”

“We must look at the common good, at the education of a generation that must overcome extremist ideology, and rebuild a city, a nation, through identity, bearing witness, and charity that touch hearts."