رابطة قدامى الإكليريكية البطريركية المارونية
War and economic crisis in Aleppo cause Christians to flee
Christians in Aleppo, Syria, numbered about 150,000 before the war. Today there are 30,000 left. Throughout Syria, the wave of migration puts at risk a presence that dates back to the origins of the Christian faith. It is a presence considered indispensable not only for the country itself, but also for the Western world.
This was stated by Monsignor Joseph Tobji, Maronite bishop of Aleppo, in an interview with Vatican Media: "The Christian presence in the East, even in Aleppo - he explains - is thousands of years old, since the time of the Apostles; therefore, it is very important that it continues, because this also benefits the universal Church - not only the East". It is, in fact, "a piece of the Mystical Body of Jesus, so the continuity of Christianity here in Aleppo, in Syria, in the East is something essential for the entire universal Church."
Secondly, adds the prelate, “the Christian presence in Aleppo and Syria is important for the country and also for Muslims, because it remains as a 'buffer' between East and West. We speak Arabic, we are Arabs by culture and therefore we understand our fellow countrymen very well, to whom we are bound by a really strong brotherhood and friendship. We understand each other well. And this also benefits Muslims and Christianity in the West. We are a bridge, a buffer, let's say, and we are bonds of human culture also for the people here.”
Are you saying that if Christians and Muslims, here, in this country, in this region, can talk to each other, then they can talk to each other and dialogue all over the world?
Yes, of course! Because this could also be an example for the whole world. We pray together, sometimes, Muslims and Christians. And simple people have Muslim neighbours, that is, they work with Christians. This gives the real idea of our faith and our human values that also come from God and thus, this promotes an attitude of openness to the Muslim mentality here in Syria. Here, for example, it is different from Saudi Arabia; Islam here is different from Islam in other parts of the world, in Turkey or Afghanistan, because here both religions coexist, and therefore there is another environment, another atmosphere of humanity.
In order to maintain this dialogue between Christians and Muslims, Christians must remain. But the problem is that today young people run away, they leave. Young people, who with much dignity, both visible and palpable, smile, talk about their studies and when it comes to talking about their future, it is the same answer for all of them: they want to go abroad. In their own country, they say, they find no source of hope...
Certainly, they don't find hope, they don't find a future, and they feel "squeezed" like an orange. A young person eager to do, to act, cannot live in this Syrian environment of ours, which is an environment of depression and pressure. But it is not political pressure, but pressure of life, the pressure of everyday life. Young people study for five years at university and then do not find a job or, if they do find a job, the salary they have is not enough to buy cigarettes. And so they always look to the West, they want to live like Westerners, thinking of a romantic life, "the good life" in a good sense, a future of work, freedom and well-being. This is all that always comes to mind for young people, especially when they see their companions who are abroad, working, taking pictures in front of palaces and gardens. Here we don't have any of this and so this dream always reinforces itself in the minds of our young people.
Young people have no hope, they can't find a job, and there are economic difficulties, also related to international sanctions. In your opinion, are conditions present today to lift international sanctions?
Actually, I am pessimistic on this front because, humanly speaking, there is no reason on the part of Western, American and European policy to lift sanctions because they have imposed them to get something in return. And these things they want in return are not yet there, many things are still needed. Now I am optimistic only in faith, because the Lord can do everything, nothing is impossible, but humanly speaking I do not see a way out.
Let's talk now about your cathedral, here in Aleppo: for those who know the city, the Maronite cathedral is right in the center, and during the years of the war, it was surrounded, with the government forces in front, and the so-called terrorists behind. It practically constituted the front line. In what condition did you find the church at the end of the fighting?
Yes, in fact the cathedral was right on the frontline because the Syrian army was in front of the front side and the terrorists - we say terrorists, not rebels - were behind the cathedral and shooting at each other. Because our church is the tallest building in the neighborhood, it was getting hit by all the bombs and all the rockets. So, I found it without a roof, with the dome full of holes, a good part of the walls knocked down and so on. Basically, a disaster. I was also, for 16 years, pastor of the cathedral, my life was here, and I always felt, every time I came after the cease-fire, an ache in my heart. Then I became a bishop and, after the war, I decided to begin the work of reconstruction. It is really fundamental to rebuild, to restore this cathedral because it is a sign of hope, it is a testimony of the Christian presence here in Aleppo. There was a great desire, an insistence to rebuild it. Of course: we waited two years to rebuild first the people's houses, the dwellings, and then, after that, we moved on to the reconstruction of the cathedral. You don't know with how much joy the population, Maronites and others, but also Muslims, told us: "Finally you are back!" It is a sign of hope, a luminous presence.