Fr. Ibrahim Sabbagh during the Summer Camp. Photo: Associazione pro Terra Sancta
We have all seen pictures of Syrians attempting to reach Europe. Those desperate people striving to touch our shores are actually the wealthiest ones. The poorest, however, die in the streets or remain trapped between borders or in Syrian cities, in episodes of unspeakable violence. They live without water, electricity, medicine. They do not have jobs anymore. The crowds of tourists that were once the lifeblood of a flourishing modern industry, which had created millions of jobs in transport, the service sector and accommodation, are long gone. The international embargo prevents any possibility of exports, whereas prices have soared.
A Friar Who Refuses to Leave
In the city that symbolises a Syria battered by a bloody and mindless war, where an increasingly suffering population has been starving for five years, lives a “saint”. His name is Ibrahim Sabbagh. He has been parish priest in Aleppo since October 2014. Born in Damascus, after his studies in Rome, he returned to Syria to “be with his people”. Internet and telephone connections are intermittent in the city most devastated by the current conflict. Water and electricity are a luxury. Yet, this tough Franciscan friar continues to live there, helping everyone, Christians and Muslims alike, in a drama from which no one is spared. I have chatted on several occasions with this man, who bears a very heavy cross. The last time, on a recent Sunday, he said: “Today we escaped death.” The jihadi militias had just bombed his church, destroying part of the apse. Not even that was enough to make him give up. In fact, after the bombing, he came out, smiling, and distributed communion in the garden in front of the church. This, moreover, was also the motto of the Summer camp: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.” A story like this, within and among the many tales of violence in Aleppo, seems incredible.
“The parents were initially very scared at the thought of letting their children leave their homes, and they didn’t have the courage to come to us to enrol them. So we phoned all the families to convince them. The opening day was a great day of celebration, with songs, dancing, chocolates, sweets and even a clown for entertainment.” The parents were totally surprised and moved, even more so than their children. “The Internet does not work much here, so the children and their parents are spared the disaster of virtual relationships and obliged to open themselves to the world of real human relationships. Our hope is that perception of the face of Christ among us, the compassionate face of God turned towards his suffering people, is strengthened through this experience.” This is why Father Ibrahim refuses to leave: “We friars remain to help the people. This is the time to be present in the most decisive way, to act as neighbours and take care of the poor and all those who suffer: we are poor with them, we suffer with them and we pray to our Father who is provident and rich in mercy.”
“An Example for Everybody”
Fr. Ibrahim’s parish in Aleppo, the parish of St. Francis, is in the district of Azizieh, an area still under the control of the regular army of Damascus. The friars, who have been in Syria for centuries, are also present in the church of St. Anthony of Padua, and in the convent of St. Bonaventure in nearby el-Ram. Despite being so close to the front, with bombs and snipers on every corner, from seven in the morning until eight at night they accommodate university and high school students who want to study but no longer have a place to do so. They welcome everyone: Christians, Muslims and Kurds. They help to distribute water and food, they have made an oratory for children, they try to help people pay their rent and school fees, despite the new additional factor of the dramatic health emergency. They do so with fear, in the face of various unknown factors.
“Despite the fact that our senses tell us there is no hope and Aleppo has no future, with the eyes of faith we continue to see salvation for our people. We continue to hope that where humans fail in the quest for peace, the Risen Lord will succeed. We will be there until the end, as a point of reference for our people and perhaps also for others. It’s enough to think that we’ve became friends with many Muslims, whereas before, we would hardly look each other in the eye. There is also the international solidarity, which helps us to survive. Even though at times it is not enough, each day I experience the miracle of the loaves and fishes.”