The martyr city’s Maronite archbishop says “some are urging Christians in the Middle East to leave given that there are so few of them. It’s not worth it, leave. But there needs to be a Christian presence in the place where faithful have been present for millennia. Regardless of how small a number remain, the remains of Israel
Forty-five-year-old Maronite bishop Joseph Tobji is among the world’s 30 youngest bishops. He leads the archdiocese of Aleppo, the martyr city that for the past five years has become famous as a scene of dead bodies and buildings gutted by bombs. Of children playing amid the rubble, dying under the bombs and grenades, while other children pray for the “dirty war” to end. “We trust that their prayers are more powerful than ours,” says another archbishop of Aleppo, the Armenian Catholic, Boutros Marayati, referring to the Christian and Muslim children of Aleppo who will meet this coming 6 October to pray for their city’s liberation from the vortex of death that is devouring it.
Archbishop, your city has turned into an inferno once again.
In the recent past, thousands of jihadist militia had honed in on Aleppo, having seized control of three military bases at the entrance to the city, besieging the western part. Then the situation was reversed, with government forces taking back the military bases and beginning a siege of the eastern part of the city. That is when the ceasefire was announced but it has failed.
That is where the most horrifying images are now coming from.
There are around 300,000 people in the eastern part. And certainly not all of them are supporters of armed groups. There are many people who have no responsibility in this. Last Wednesday the government and the army sent out an appeal on television and social media for those living in neighbourhoods where paths were apparently going to be left open to allow people to head towards areas that were indicated as safe. Many civilian families got out. But it wasn’t a mass evacuation. The ultimatum for those who want to leave expires in the next few days. There is a risk of a new escalation.
Western media are constantly blaming Russia’s intervention.
I can testify that the people living in western Aleppo, where the majority of civilians is concentrated, was relieved by Russia’s intervention because it stopped or at least rarefied artillery launches being made from neighbourhoods occupied by armed groups. At least the Russians’ actions are consistent with what they say. The others have contradicted themselves so often since the start of the war. People see missiles approaching their homes , they live in fear and do not distinguish between Islamic State missiles and Al-Nusra Front missiles. Western media are not describing events objectively. The source everyone seems to be relying on is this elusive Observatory for human rights, some office in London with a person sitting in front of a computer. Something isn’t isn’t right here.
The Latin Bishop of Aleppo, Fr. Georges Abou Khazen, said that the US bombing of the Syrian air base at Deir el Zor cannot be passed off as a “mistake”…
I agree with him. They’re taking us for a ride, as if we were fools. And yet no one ever questioned that “official version”.
In the midst of all this, you are continuing your pastoral work as carers of souls.
We are doing what we can. With many things reduced to a bare minimum. Scouts camps went ahead this year too. In July, while the World Youth Day in Krakow was underway, our young people celebrated their own World Youth Day in Aleppo, seeing as though they couldn’t go to Krakow.
How many were there?
Over a thousand. But I don’t like to speak in terms of numbers. We don’t know how many Christians are left in Aleppo. The numbers change on a daily basis. Some leave, go to the coast for a month or so and then come back. Also, when you hazard a guess at a number, some say to you: oh, but there’s so few of you, what are you still doing there , it’s not worth it, leave. But whether there are a thousand or a hundred thousand, there needs to be a Christian presence in the place where faithful have been present for millennia. Regardless of how small a number remain, the remains of Israel. There are still Christians in the areas occupied by the Islamic State. There are even some in Raqqa. They live in seclusion and pay the jizya (the “compensation tax” non-Muslims are forced to pay, Ed.). But it is nevertheless as small sign that a fragile and defenceless community of Christians can even live under the jihadists. Our hope and responsibility as pastors is to help everyone live the faith, hope and charity in the conditions we find ourselves living.
In the West, there is an extremely active network that is working in defence of Christians in the Middle East. Isn’t there a risk here of proving right those who are presenting you as the privileged recipients of help from western “Crusaders”?
Eastern Christians are an independent community whose survival is certainly not going to depend on external help and political or ecclesiastical “protection”. The legitimate concerns of our faraway brothers and sisters about our suffering must always be aware of this. And the aid sent here must not turn into a “competition”, which does the Church no good. In the face of difficulty, Christians turn to their bishop for help. There are Churches that have the means and resources to respond to these needs. And there are others that do not. These differences come to light because there are many mixed marriages here, our families are almost always made up of Christians of different denominations. This causes unpleasant comparisons and sometimes leads to recrimination. This is our problem, we need to deal with this ourselves and we as bishops are taking steps to address the issue. But it is good for those sending aid from outside to be aware of this.