The Custos of the Holy Land, fr. Francesco Patton, returned from his trip to Syria on 12th March. He had spent ten days visiting the friars and the communities affected by the violent earthquake of 6th February, which sowed destruction and death in an area already harshly put to the test by the war. After a short stop in the community of Damascus, he spent time in particular in Aleppo, the place most affected and where most of the work of the Franciscans is concentrated. Before returning to Jerusalem, the Custos also spent a few days in Lattakia, in the Valley of the Orontes.
«With this trip I wanted to express my closeness to the friars: working in that dangerous, difficult and challenging situation, receiving the visit of their minister, is an act which gives encouragement and comfort. I showed the friars all my support and gratitude, but above all I expressed my gratitude to the Lord for their daily work where they put into practice what Jesus asks in the Gospel and what St Francis indicated: live in brotherhood and be “subjects and subjected to every human creature out of the love for God, be at the service of everyone out of the love of God”».
What is the situation like in the different communities you visited?
«I saw a very harsh reality, because 12 years of war have destroyed Syria. The earthquake was the final blow: a part of the city of Aleppo, for example, already damaged by the bombings, is now a pile of rubble. What happened in the villages in the Valley of Orontes is even worse: Knayeh and Yacoubieh, where several Christians and two friars still live. They are villages which during the war had not suffered too much destruction, but the houses collapsed in the earthquake which also severely damaged the church and the convent of Yacoubieh and also caused great damage to the convent of Knayeh. The population there are now living in tents.
In contrast, beyond the destruction, I was able to see the great hospitality that the friars of the Custody have been offering since the first moments of the emergency. From the very first days, the Terra Santa College in Aleppo (the school run by the Franciscans) opened its doors to accommodate up to 6,000 people. I saw great generosity and attention not only for the Latin Christians (who are our parishioners) but also for the Muslims. The result of all this was the mutual aid between the different communities: the Red Crescent and the Muslim charities gave us mattresses for the night and other basic commodities. When good is done gratuitously, generously and without distinction, it sets further good into motion.
In Aleppo projects such as “A Name and a future” and projects of literacy started to help the orphans or abandoned children and women of Aleppo east, have gradually got started again. The buildings where the lessons are held are surrounded by total devastation and 20-30 children and women learning to read and write, learning how to make soap or how to sew and do other trades so that they can find work, are packed into a small classroom of a few square metres. The people are happy to have started these activities again».
At the moment what are the greatest challenges that have to be faced?
«Paradoxically the greatest challenge is a challenge that is not material: defeating fear. Everyone who has experienced such a strong earthquake (it was of almost the 8th magnitude on the Richter scale) is frightened again at even the slightest movement or tremor: the people, especially in the first few days, did not want to go back to their homes and often returned immediately to the convent. The friars in this period did a very great job at comforting and consoling. In Knayeh and Yacoubieh, fr. Luai went to visit people every day to see how they were and to reassure them. In Aleppo, together with fr. Bahjat, fr. Samhar and fr. Bassam, our young brothers fr. Johnny and fr. George, fr. Maikel, fr. George and fr. Haroutioun also gave a hand in consoling, comforting and encouraging all these very frightened people. Fr. Khokaz ran the canteen for those who had no homes left, serving up to 4,000 meals a day, which for such a modest facility, is really a huge number. Fr. Fadi, together with fr. Graziano and fr. Salem did the same in Lattakia: they all worked intensely, not only to guarantee material things, but also to support the homeless psychologically.
The further challenges that are opening up are necessarily about the future: the main need will be to repair and rebuild homes. In Aleppo, a group of engineers are training the local technicians on evaluating the severity of the damage to the structures. Then we have to think of all those who, because of the earthquake, have lost not only their homes, but their shops and their workshops. And support the opening of small business that can produce income, because people cannot live off charity forever. At the moment, one of the greatest problems in Syria is the instability of the currency, which does not allow any investment to be made. The people’s incomes are non-existent: the salaries correspond to the equivalent of $28 a month. How can a person pay rent and provide for the needs of their family and even, in the case of necessity, pay for medicine as well?
Clearly we cannot solve the problems of a country’s economy but we can at least help many people resume their activities.
On our side, there has to be the commitment to support the Christians of Syria because – we must never forget this - they are the Christians the Gospel started from to reach much of the world. The community where evangelization started in the times of the Acts of the Apostles is the community of Antioch (then the capital of Syria): we must all feel in debt to this church which gave rise to the first great missionary drive to Europe and Asia».
The Good Friday Collection is approaching (the Collection which traditionally is on Good Friday, is the main source for the sustenance of life around the Holy Places). What would you like to share with Christians all over the world to invite them to donate?
«Good Friday is the day on which all the Christians in the world are called to show solidarity with the Holy Land. To be motivated to show this solidarity, each Christian ought to stand in front of the image of Christ on the cross, because they are the image of He who was able to give everything, even his own life. What we are asking is not to give lives, but to make a contribution, which expresses closeness and solidarity with the Christians in this Land. I like to remember what St Paul said, when he organized the first collection. His words are very strong and can be found in the second Letter to the Corinthians: “whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly. And whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully”. If you have a small heart, you will give a little, if you have a large heart, you will give a lot. And then St Paul added “God loves a cheerful giver,” and not those who give grudgingly.
My invitation is to be generous, but with joy, that is, to feel that sharing is something beautiful and something true, that puts joy into the heart, because it makes us feel that what we have received, in some way we can, in our turn, return it and give it.
I want to thank Christians all over the world. Because thanks to them we have the possibility of living our mission here in the Holy Land. Thanks to the great heart of Christians, which has not yet hardened, but which is still capable of loving, a heart capable of generosity».