Vicar of Aleppo: Despite the war, churches crowded for Easter
Mgr Georges Abou Khazen talks about crowded churches and the "moving" presence of the faithful, despite the war and Islamist threats. Muslims show their affection and join in the celebration. For apostolic nuncio of Damascus, Catholics and Orthodox brought together by the violence, with "ecumenism" as the answer to war and terror.

Aleppo (AsiaNews) – "These are difficult days, especially after the fall of Idlib" in the hands of Islamist movements. The city "is not far from Aleppo and people fear the same might happen here. Yet, in spite of fears, Christians are taking part in Holy Week rites and the churches are always packed,” said Mgr Georges Abou Khazen, apostolic vicar of Aleppo of the Latins.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he said that "the presence and the number of faithful on Palm Sunday was beautiful and touching”. Despite shelling "everywhere, people were not afraid and attended Mass and the procession with their children. For the youngest, it was a special feast, for they carried the adorned candles during the procession . . . Faith is really stronger than fear."

In the city, everyone, Christians included, is very concerned about the arrival of Jihadi forces, following the recent fall of Idlib, in north-western Syria, to the Islamic State (IS) group, the apostolic vicar of Aleppo said.

IS fighters seized a Greek Orthodox priest, and yesterday, upon reaching the outskirts of Damascus, they attacked the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, about 6 km south of the capital. Sources told AsiaNews that this attack could be "a settling of scores between IS forces near the camp, and rebel groups inside it.”

In a situation of war, persecution and violence, Aleppo’s Christians have thrown themselves into Holy Week with a great deal of enthusiasm, doing many things, meditating, because faith is stronger than fear, the prelate noted.

“For us pastors, their witness is a source of encouragement,” said Mgr Abou Khazen. “Thanks to their faith and prayers, the Risen Lord will deliver us." Meanwhile, “Muslims also showed us their affection. This a great sign of goodwill.”

The Church itself "is playing a great role in helping refugees, Christians and Muslims, and they are very grateful for this."

"We help the children, without distinction of religion, through Caritas Syria,” the prelate explained, “not only with food, but also shoes, trousers, and shirts. It is great to see the joy of these people, the kids and their parents, who realise that we look at them with affection, for their own good. They too are part of our family and this celebration."

At the pastoral level, "we organised religious services, sermons and meetings in various churches, insisting on penance and conversion, in light of the overall situation," Mgr Georges said.

Events in Idlib are “frightening”. Yet, despite them, we are courageously going through our own Via Crucis, in the light of the resurrection and this gives us great hope."

In a pastoral letter, the prelate stressed that "the Risen Christ did not seek vengeance, but sent his people out to preach the Good News, and teach love and forgiveness.”

“This is my message for Easter and the faithful took up the invitation,” he said. “They have set up groups to meet, and meditate on the letter. Let us hope that the Lord will use us as a sign and witness of peace. "

In Damascus, however, all eyes are on what is happening in the Yarmouk refugee camp. For the Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Mario Zenari, it "is disgrace that the issue of the refugee camp is raised only on certain occasions".

The camp’s residents – more than 18,500 Palestinians – are living through "a never-ending ordeal, with no medicines. Food and aid come in dribs and drabs." This is shameful.

This tragedy has been going on for a long time, just a few kilometres from the capital, with local and international authorities standing idly by. "They are going through their own Via Crucis,” the prelate said, “at one of the most sorrowful stations."

For the apostolic nuncio, Syria as a whole is going through its own pain-filled Way of the Cross. The problem, he explained, is that "we do not know at which station we are – whether it is the last, on the eve of the resurrection, or just at the beginning."

Still, this year, the atmosphere of war, the violence and the tensions have brought greater closeness and unity among Christians, irrespective of their denominational differences; this, thanks to the proximity in the calendar (Catholic and Orthodox Easter are just a week apart, 5 and 12 April, this year).

"The war situation is an encouragement to pray together and help each other,” Mgr Zenari said. “We went through an intense moment on 16 March, with Catholics and Orthodox taking part in a joint prayer . . . War ecumenism helps us pray and reflect." (DS)