Cover Story
Antoine Audo
Cafod
Antoine Audo

Staying the course

Daniel of the Year | Bishop Antoine Audo and the long-suffering, war-torn, not-going-anywhere Christians of Syria

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

The air bites, a chill signaling winter is coming, as Antoine Audo sets off from his home in Aleppo. It’s important to take advantage of the daylight hours in Syria’s largest city, where in recent months electricity has been off more than on, and an unbroken blackout has persisted for the last five days. 

A morning walk is no stroll for the 67-year-old Chaldean bishop of Aleppo. Rubble and cratered buildings are around nearly every corner he takes. The refuse from more than two years of civil war is so pervasive that even when the bombs aren’t falling, the stone and concrete dust is rising. On a day of bright sun and blue sky in early November, the air hangs thick with rubble debris, the crumbled buildings exhaling their losses so persistently that satellite imagery captures the dust clouds from space.

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Syria may be a majority Muslim nation, but Aleppo, despite repeated pogroms, is a city that’s never outrun its Christianity—until possibly now. It has 45 churches. They range from an evangelical church and new Greek Orthodox congregations established only in the last decade, to the Armenian Cathedral of the Forty Martyrs founded in 1429. (It replaced a chapel believed centuries older.)

From the heart of Aleppo’s Old City to the suburbs beyond its ring road, these form an array of Middle East Christendom with its layers of history and conquest—Armenian Evangelicals and Armenian Catholics, Melkite Greeks and Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholics, Maronites, Chaldeans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Baptists, and more.

Middle-aged churchgoers remember the city as one-fourth Christian when they were young. Now Christians make up perhaps less than 10 percent of the population. But the churches, even the oldest ones, are far from relics—full for regular services and many operating schools and charities, and now with war, relief work and medical care.

Audo presides over Aleppo’s Chaldean church, a denomination that traces its roots back to the Church of the East and the Nestorians, a church that once worshipped—and in some places still does—in Aramaic, the trade language spoken by Jesus. Audo also heads nationwide the work of Caritas, the Catholic relief agency. As a lifelong resident of Aleppo and bishop for 25 years, he is one of the longest-serving church leaders in the country. And in time of war, he is not only a veteran but also a survivor.

At least six top Christian clergy have been kidnapped since Syria’s civil war began in March 2011, plus dozens more laymen. Rebel groups seized Aleppo’s Orthodox prelates in April—Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi—both men Audo considers close colleagues and who leave the two large denominations leaderless.

Audo knows there’s danger for him, too, but has changed little about his daily schedule—except that he no longer wears vestments on the street and avoids being alone. “When I walk, I walk without official dressing. I’ve been advised and know that I have to be careful.”

Without formal security he moves freely every day, visiting parishioners, overseeing relief work that now serves thousands in the city, and holding a Eucharist celebration every evening at St. Joseph’s Chaldean Cathedral. Twenty or 30 people come each evening, he said, even though the church at the moment lacks power and water.

The last time I spoke with him, by telephone on a Sunday evening in November, he had just returned to his home from officiating at a wedding. Heat and lights were out, he said, forcing him to prepare “by candle” his sermons for the week ahead.

“I am not afraid. It’s a question of confidence. I am confident of God’s provision as I am doing my job, and I like to go in the streets to feel the situation and the suffering of the people.”

Recognized internationally, Audo normally keeps a brisk travel schedule with meetings in Rome, London, and elsewhere. War and wartime responsibilities make travel a challenge: The last four months, he says, he has not left the city.

As we spoke, fighting between rebel groups and the government army encircled Aleppo. On Saturday, Nov. 9, the army launched a barrage of pre-dawn artillery fire and air strikes, retaking a military base near Aleppo’s airport.

On Sunday a government rocket killed six civilians walking near a traffic circle in the city. At a vegetable market five more civilians were killed by a rebel mortar shell. As rocket fire punctuated the Sunday quiet, jihadi fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) killed and decapitated a man they claimed was an Iraqi Shiite fighter for the government. They held high his severed head to civilian onlookers, as a lesson, only to learn themselves that he was a rebel from another militant group fighting on their side.

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