From the ground in Syria, Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart pleads for peace
Syria is now 5 1/2 years into a violent war, and one of its ancient cities, Aleppo, has found itself constantly under siege. For years, Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the current Archbishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Archeparchy of Aleppo and apostolic visitor of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Western Europe, has been working to bring the attention of the world to the plight of the region’s Christian population. In an interview with Our Sunday Visitor on Aug. 12 from Aleppo, he continued his plea.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is happening on the ground right now in Aleppo?
Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart: On the ground, it’s very hard, fighting and bombing, and we are in a very difficult time. We are not able to sleep by night because the bombing continues. We are afraid of what can happen next. We hope that this fight may stop, the war may end and peace could come to help us and our people continue to live in this country. We rely on the help of our brothers to do what they can to help reach an agreement for peace and find a way to get back our peace, serenity and what is our right — the right to live in our country, our home, and to continue to be with others as brothers and sisters.
OSV: What does the international community need to be doing more of?
Archbishop Jeanbart: We are wondering, what are their intentions? What are the intentions of the nations? Are they really willing to help us, or are they interested (in) destroying our country? What they are doing is unjust and a denigration against our people and our country. People are dying; people are really suffering. Enough in enough. In Aleppo, it’s five years of fighting. We cannot support anymore to live in this hardship and to live in this situation.
OSV: What are your current needs?
Archbishop Jeanbart: We need everything. We do not have water, we do not have power, we do not have food, we do not have medicine. They have destroyed our schools, our hospitals, our industries. One of the most wealthy cities in Syria, they have destroyed all its industry and business. We do not know what they are going to do and where they are going with all this strategy and destruction. We need our friends and brothers and the people who fear God to do something. To push to have peace, to push to have dialogue and understanding. I hope that the meeting in Geneva that is promised to be at the end of August will bring some solutions and ... help us to find a way to live with serenity and security in our country.
OSV: Who remains in Syria?
Archbishop Jeanbart: Half the population is out of their homes and houses. Many have been killed. They have lost all that they have; their houses, their factories ... they have no interest in thinking about the future. What they need is to live day by day, hour by hour.
The fighting could be the end of all the Christians and other minorities and even other Muslims who do not want this kind of terrorism and also violence. We used to live with Muslims for decades and decades and centuries. They were here in the seventh century in Syria, and we found a way to live together, respecting each other and trying to do our best. But this war, which was supposed to bring us democracy and a better life, has destroyed everything.
OSV: What is life like for Christians in Syria right now?
Archbishop Jeanbart: They are around us. They come to church. We do what we can to help them. They feel protected by the Church as much as we can. We offer them what we can and what is very important for them to be able to continue living ... and we are sure that what we are doing is just minimum. But we cannot do more, and we need, of course, to encourage our people. I hope that one day that we can help them to find peace. Of course, we can expect some friends abroad to support our request and to (put) pressure on people who can decide. I hope the U.S. will change its policy, get more interested in peace and in our lives — more than in our wealth and the wealth of the region — so that it may come that human beings may be put in the first place and not in the last place ... of the interest of the nations. (The region) has become a kind of product to exploit and to sell and buy. What for? To get more power, more influence, more money, more wealth? [The international community and its leaders] will have to present to the Lord the report of what they have done — the good they have done, the bad they have done. Nobody is eternal. Nobody can live forever, and one day, they will have to present themselves, and the Lord will judge (on) the charity and the love they have offered others in need of their love. I think they have forgotten all about what they should do. As human beings, they are responsible. What is happening in our country is not a local war. It is an international war.
OSV: You recently spoke at the Knights of Columbus convention in Toronto. How has that organization assisted those in Syria and the Middle East?
Archbishop Jeanbart: I think that the Knights of Columbus have been wonderful. They have understood what is going on, and they are supporting us, trying to do what they can to make people aware — particularly also about preventing the destruction of the Church and the disappearance of Christians. The radicals are perpetrating a genocide among groups of people who want to live peacefully, who do not want war, who have a right to go on living. I am afraid that if your people do not do something to help us to live, who knows what will be the future? We are thankful, and we recognize all the efforts the Knights of Columbus have done to help us in many ways. We thank God that we have the United States and this kind of organization, the Knights, who are willing to do their best to help people, who are faithful to their duty. They are honest; they want to make sure that the law is observed, human beings are protected and life is respected.
OSV: Can you tell me a little bit about the initiative “Build to Stay”?
Archbishop Jeanbart: It’s a movement we have organized to help our people to take their situation in hand and to help them to find work, to start up a small business, to be able to restore their houses, to give them education in several ways. To offer them also some medical help. To try to make them work with us, to take their responsibility themselves, and to be an actor with us in this effort to continue to live in this part of the world. We’ll build our country, our society ... even though some people want to destroy it. And ‘Built to Stay’ is a movement open to any Christian who wants to stay, to remain in this part of the world. This will be to help people live a better life for suffering people. We need to have understanding, but also moral support, political support, financial support.
OSV: Why is this so important?
Archbishop Jeanbart: I can tell you in a very real way, we believe that the Church must continue to live in this country where it has been founded. The Church began in Syria and should continue living in Syria until the coming back of the Lord. Just a few hours after Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit came to the apostles, 3,000 were baptized, and these 3,000 were people of Syria. We are in between the Old and the New Testament; we are the real son of Abraham. We were members of the chosen people. We became also members of the chosen coming of Jesus Christ. And we have millions and millions of baptized to keep our faith and to be faithful to Jesus Christ. Our land is irrigated by the blood of millions, and our land is mixed with the relics of millions of holy people — brothers of the Church, the apostles, the disciples of Jesus Christ. This is very important. As a pastor, as a recent successor of the apostles, I have this responsibility to help the people of the world to understand that. That we may fight, we may resist in order to remain where the Church was born. We do whatever we can to continue this presence, and we need you to help us remain where we are — to continue the life of Jesus Christ, of the Church, in this land.