Vicar of Aleppo: ecumenism of solidarity amid war and poverty
On June 28, Pope Francis accepted Msgr. Abou Khazen's resignation upon reaching the age for retirement. He has firsthand experience of the conflict, rampant poverty and emigration that afflict the nation. In reflections shared with AsiaNews he recounts the "darkness of death," which is countered by "commitment to our neighbor" even among Christians and Muslims. The call to continue the witness of faith and connection to the land.
Aleppo (AsiaNews) - He experienced firsthand the worst years of the war, which was followed by rampant poverty that still affects the population today, exacerbated by international sanctions blocking recovery. But in this climate of enormous hardship he also experienced the "light of charity, of solidarity" and the "ecumenism of need" that led the various Churches to unite and collaborate.
This is the reflection entrusted to AsiaNews by the Apostolic Vicar of the Latins of Aleppo, Msgr. Georges Abou Khazen, after Pope Francis accepted his resignation due to having reached the age limit on June 29. The pontiff appointed Franciscan Fr. Raymond Girgis O.F.M., hitherto vicar general, as apostolic administrator sede vacante of what was once Syria's economic and commercial capital. "The worst phase of the conflict is behind us," the prelate stressed, "but the situation remains difficult, people struggle to get their daily bread and often feel helpless and desperate.
"Food is found," he continues, "but it is very expensive, salaries remained unchanged but before one euro was exchanged for 55 Syrian liras, today it is worth 4,500. There is also a lack of work, most families are forced to scrape together the minimum necessary to buy some bread. There is great fatigue, calls to emigrate are multiplying. For many without aid, and for Christians without the presence of the Church, it would be impossible to survive. They would literally die of starvation or disease, as many medicines cannot be imported because of sanctions. And again gas, gasoline... that's why the first step is to loosen the punitive measures and promote investments, projects, give prospects for the future by stemming the exodus."
Bishop Abou Khazen was born on August 3, 1947, in Aïn Zebdeh, Lebanon. He entered the Franciscan congregation on his 25th birthday, Aug. 3, 1972, and professed perpetual vows, receiving priestly ordination on June 28 the following year. Pope Francis appointed him vicar apostolic of Aleppo on Nov. 4, 2013, following the resignation of Msgr. Joseph Nazzaro. His episcopal ordination took place on Jan. 11, 2014, at the hands of the prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches Card. Leonardo Sandri.
More than 11 years after the beginning of the war in the spring of 2011, the situation in Aleppo as in all of Syria continues to be difficult, although the bloodiest phases seem to have passed and the attentions of the international community are turning elsewhere, especially to Ukraine where "a new Syria" is underway. To date they count nearly 400mia casualties (over 300 thousand civilians), dozens of towns have been razed to the ground, and half the population is reportedly internally displaced or refugees. Biting above all is the economic crisis and lack of jobs with a high unemployment rate, particularly youth unemployment.
Eighty-five percent of the population lives below the poverty line, more than 14 million--out of a total population just over 18 million--are in need of benefits, and inflation has led to a surge in prices. Adding to the economic crisis and war are Western sanctions, including the infamous Caesar Act, which affects mostly poor and ordinary people.
"The Christian community," recounts Msgr. Abou Khazen, "experiences the difficulties of everyone. We as churches try to help people to stay, but how can you keep a father of a family who gets up at 4 a.m. and stands in line for a piece of bread that he manages to retrieve, perhaps, at 9 a.m. and then goes to work." In this critical situation "we have experienced a de facto ecumenism, with a meeting every month between bishops and religious leaders of various Christian denominations and rites. We have promoted projects, aid by collaborating to make them relevant, helped families, launched health projects, scholarships for schoolchildren from elementary to university, four soup kitchens, food baskets... We contribute to give some light and hope, with an ecumenical spirit."
Of these years as vicar, he emphasizes "the darkness of war, death and destruction, the sharing of suffering." Also, the "beauty of solidarity" even between Christians and Muslims, "the commitment to one's neighbor." From his people he says he learned the value of "patience and faith," which never failed and was "the strength that saved us." In the coming weeks the handover will take place, then the vicar intends to retire to a convent in Lebanon, not before addressing a final farewell to the community: "I would like to thank them," he concludes, "and tell them to continue the journey, staying connected to their land and witnessing to the faith.