NEW YORK (RNS) In the weeks leading up to Easter, Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo was starting to sense, finally, that the war that had ravaged Syria since 2011 was finally beginning to ease.
He launched an effort to promote rebuilding and to keep some of the younger generation of Christians in Aleppo, a religiously diverse city of 3 million near the Turkish border that had been the country’s commercial hub.
Then, on Easter weekend, another round of fighting erupted, targeting the Christian quarter of the city and killing and injuring dozens. Three churches and several apartment buildings were destroyed and rockets hit Jeanbart’s own offices, which sit less than 200 yards from the Old City, where the rebels are based.
The archbishop spent the next week looking for someplace to bury the bodies of a family of four since the Catholic cemetery was now a battle zone.
“I was without any words to say to my people,” the prelate said in an interview as he prepared to celebrate an evening prayer service at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Brooklyn, one stop on a 10-day tour of the U.S. that ends on Friday (May 1).
It was a grim moment, a low point even amid the horror of the civil strife that has devastated Syria, and in particular the country’s ancient Christian minority.
Jeanbart heads the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Aleppo, an Eastern Catholic rite that is in full communion with Rome, but one that is in serious peril.
Just a few decades ago, Aleppo was home to about 170,000 Catholics, about a third of the city’s population. Since the war broke out, Jeanbart has seen a third of his flock reduced by death, dislocation and emigration while Aleppo’s Muslim population has soared.
The threat of annihilation is constant, as Aleppo has become the main battleground between the government forces of President Bashar Assad and a motley assortment of rebels who include growing numbers of fighters affiliated with the fundamentalist terrorism of the Islamic State group.
Militants from the Islamic State have killed or kidnapped priests; the tires on Jeanbart’s own car were shot out in an attack as he traveled to Beirut. Two Eastern Orthodox bishops were captured two years ago and there has been no word on their condition. Snipers, shelling, lootings and car bombings are a part of the daily gantlet Christians run if they leave their homes. “A country of blood and fire,” he calls it.
That’s why the Catholic relief agency Aid to the Church in Need brought Jeanbart to the U.S. — to raise awareness about the seriousness of their plight and to raise money to help rebuild the community.
“We are in grave danger; we may disappear soon,” as Jeanbart told an audience in Manhattan on Tuesday (April 28). He began his tour in Boston and was headed to Washington, speaking to church groups but also doing numerous media and television interviews to get the word out.
Yet the archbishop knows he has a host of forces arrayed against him, and not just on the battlefield:
- First, in his experience, Jeanbart said Americans tend to assume that everyone in an Arab country such as Syria is a Muslim. Melkite Catholics in the U.S. are a proud and vibrant community, numbering some 25,000 families in nearly 50 parishes. But they are spread across the country and are almost invisible when compared with the 65 million Roman Catholics in the U.S.
- Second, Jeanbart said the media’s focus on the geopolitics of the Middle East conflict and on military strategies obscures Syria’s pluralistic society and the fact that Christians exist there — and are main targets for Islamist terrorists.
- Third, the geopolitics don’t work in the church’s favor. The Assad regime and the rebels have support from different Muslim countries, which use each side as a proxy, while he said Israel is the focus of U.S. support. Jeanbart stressed his support for Israel’s right to exist, but he said there needs to be a different balance.
“I know the American people have values and like freedom and like justice, so I thought they would listen, would give an ear to the other communities in the region — particularly the Christians, who are forgotten,” said Jeanbart, 72 and yet still energetic after a long day of interviews and little sleep.
But Jeanbart faces another challenge when he speaks to an American audience: For him, as for other Syrian Christians, Assad is not the despot that he is considered in Washington.
Christians in Syria felt protected by Assad, he said, much as Christians in Iraq were under Saddam Hussein. Many on Capitol Hill, however, want to send more arms and funding to the rebels and remove Assad, who has been accused of using chemical weapons as well as being a serial violator of human rights.
“It’s up to them (the Americans) whether to like him or not,” Jeanbart said of Assad. “But I’m afraid they don’t know him enough. He’s not an angel. He will not be canonized tomorrow. But he’s not bad. Compared to the other Arab leaders, he may be one of the best.”
Assad is under growing pressure from the rebels and the Islamic State, and if Assad falls, Jeanbart fears that the ensuing chaos — like that in Libya and Iraq — may sound the death knell for a Christian community that predates even the conversion of the Apostle Paul.
“As a successor to the apostles I feel a responsibility, a duty, to do what I can,” he said. “I don’t want, in my time, that this church might disappear. We are all responsible” — pointing to Christians in the West — “for the continuity of the church in this land that has been blessed and sanctified by the blood of millions of martyrs who since the beginning have been killed because they were Christians.”