Cover Story

Surviving by serving

"Surviving by serving" Continued...

Issue: "Syria's pain," Sept. 8, 2012

Church leaders are quick to acknowledge that the situation is tense and subject to change. "People are terrified," reported Chaldean Archbishop of all Syria Antoine Audo. He spoke to reporters by telephone after conducting a service at Aleppo's St. Joseph's Church earlier this month while explosions and gunfire sounded in the distance. "They fear a situation that is becoming more and more violent and uncertain."

"When I'm asked about Syria, the first thing I say, generally, is that we don't want to become like Iraq," said the archbishop, who was born in Iraq's Nineveh Plains. "That fear is very present with us. That would mean the destruction of a Christian presence in Syria that has been here since the beginning of Christianity."

In 2008 I sat with Audo outside a church in Aleppo's city center as young boys and girls from a church "Scouts" group played basketball and other games under olive trees. With the approach of darkness on a Friday evening, all around us began the Muslim call to prayer, and we watched as hundreds began filing into the expansive mosque built between the old Chaldean and Greek Catholic churches. From across the street came persistent car honking-the sign of a wedding procession passing by headed to one of the churches, its cars polished and bedecked in flowers.

"Even the Muslims need historical references, even if they are in opposition," Audo said from our bench. "Christians represent something that comes before them. In Syria we have a tradition of living together. There is respect for us here, even though we have this fanaticism growing."

More and more Muslim women in Aleppo were wearing hijab, I had noticed, and the archbishop acknowledged, "It is a sign. But we must stay ... in a step of confidence. Unfortunately the Muslim feels himself very strong. They want to have opposition, and they want to have war, even if they say they want peace and reconciliation."

I felt his foreboding, plus the weight of caring then for thousands of newly arrived Iraqi refugees. "How do you keep going, and committed to ministry in Aleppo when you could be somewhere else?" I asked.

"Day by day," he said. "It is a stress every day. But this is a church of Mesopotamia now for 2,000 years. The call is to continue with a presence to give a taste of faith to Kurdish and Arabic peoples, and others. So we are doing our duty as witnesses, praying, attending to the Eucharist, showing the presence of the Lord, and serving Him with joy."


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