From September 2015 to November 2016, St Anselm’s Parish is joining forces with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need to offer emergency aid – food, shelter, clothes and pastoral help – to faithful suffering, persecution and violence in Syria.
Moved by the plight of people suffering in Syria, especially Christians, Fr Will asked Parish MC John Pontifex, who works for Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, what we as a parish could do to help. John, who visited Syria in happier times and who is in regular contact with Church leaders, helped Fr Will set up a special parish lifeline of support to Syria through the work of ACN.
Message from John Pontifex, MC St Anselm’s Parish:
Let me start with an extract from a letter I received from a bishop in Syria a few weeks ago.
He writes: “My cathedral has been bombed six times and is now unusable. My home has also been hit more than 10 times… We are facing the rage of fierce fighting and religious extremism. We are defenceless. We are – to use the words of Sacred Scripture – ‘reckoned as sheep for the slaughter’.”
The words of Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart from Aleppo in Syria.
Aleppo bares no comparison with the city I visited in happier times. The city in the north-west of the country is at the epicentre of a storm that is pitting one power against another. And, as ever, it is the people who suffer the most.
And that is why I am not on the altar serving in the normal way – but addressing you as part of my work with Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity which I know many of you support. Aid to the Church in Need is prioritising emergency help to the Middle East especially Iraq and Syria.
The reports that we receive paint a tragic picture memorably exemplified by the sight of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy whose lifeless body was washed up on a beach in Turkey 10 days ago.
If such an image had the power to change public attitudes to the plight of refugees, so should we be moved by the suffering of those they have left behind in Aleppo and elsewhere.
This week we received a report direct from Syria during a visit there by Aid to the Church in Need Middle East Projects Coordinator Fr Andrew Halemba. Such eye-witness accounts are similar to those sent us by Sister Annie Demerjian, a nun working and ministering in Aleppo.
She said that rebel forces had recently cut off the water supply, dumping the rest of the drinking water in the river.
She writes: “It is very distressing to see the old people carrying the water from the well of the church and sometimes this water is not drinkable water.”
We are told that all factories in Aleppo are destroyed or not functioning. Shops and other businesses are shut. So many have lost their jobs and many families have virtually nothing to live on. They spent all their savings over the course of a war already into its fifth year.
People of all faiths and none have suffered. Christians and other minorities have however suffered especially badly.
As part of my work researching and reporting on Christian persecution for Aid to the Church in Need, I interviewed a Syrian family in exile in Jordan. The last straw came when they were told: “Don’t celebrate Easter otherwise you will be killed like your Christ.”
They told me how their parish priest, Fr Fadi Haddad, had been kidnapped. When his body was found a few days later abandoned on a roadside, it was so badly mutilated dental records were needed to confirm his identity.
Indeed, the threat to clergy is grave. Archbishop Jeanbart’s brother bishops in Aleppo – YOUHANNA IBRAHIM and BOULOS YAZIGI were kidnapped in April 2013 and nothing has been seen or heard of them since. Two priests I met in Syria, the Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio from Mar Musa monastery and Father Jacques Mourad from Qaratayn, have been abducted. Analysts believe removing priests is central to ISIS strategy: attack the Church leaders and presume the faithful will fall away from their faith. It calls to mind Christ’s words which we hear in Holy Week during the Passion. ‘Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will scatter’.
Not that the extremists aren’t succeeding in getting rid of Christians. In 2010, before the war in Syria begun, there were thought to be 1.25 million Christians. In March the European Parliament was told that 700,000 Christians had fled abroad since the war began.
If half the country’s Christians can leave in four years, how long will it take for the half to make their exit?
Except that many are unable to go. They are old, they are sick and there are others who see no reason why they should leave the country that has been their family’s home for so long.
And this is important for two reasons. The first was made clear by The Prince of Wales during his video message released to mark the launch of Aid to the Church in Need’s 2014 religious freedom report. He described Christians as ‘bridge builders’ in the Middle East – people whose language is Arabic, but whose culture has been influenced by Europe and who have played an important role at all levels of the economy.
The second reason the decline of Christianity in Syria is tragic is that the Church’s roots there go back to the 1st century. Think of St Paul and his conversion on the road to Syria. It was in Syria that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians.
And that is why we as a parish are launching a special project appeal for Syria. Starting this weekend and running through until November next year, we will be raising money, raising awareness and raising our hearts and minds in prayer – all for the people of Syria. Father Will and the parish team are – as indeed are all of us – profoundly moved by the suffering of so many, not least our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In our Parish Project, which we are calling ‘Offering a lifeline to Syria’, we will be specifically supporting the work of Sr Annie Demerjian both in Aleppo and in nearby towns and villages.
Sr Annie is providing ongoing help to 750 families – equivalent to nearly 4,000 people – paying their utility bills: fuel – oil – electricity and rent. Costs fluctuate considerably but she has stated that on average for one family monthly bills include £41 for fuel – 200 litres of oil – £26.30 for electricity and £115 for rent. Sr Annie says that as the winter approaches, these basic provisions are vital. She described how one family cut up their arm chairs to provide fire wood to stave off the cold.
She is also providing families with clothing and shoes – again vital in the winter. For the city of Hassake – to where many Christians fled after their communities were attacked by ISIS in February – Sr Annie is providing anoraks. Last winter she effectively smuggled in 600 coats for children, sending them there on a bus. She said: “We were warned that ISIS could confiscate the package if they discovered they were being sent by Christians for use by Christians. But some Muslims helped.
us by putting their names on the delivery note. Fortunately” – Sr Annie concluded – “the rouse worked.”
She told us how urgent it was to help youngsters. She spoke of two young girls she regularly visits in Aleppo – who were totally reliant on her because their mother has had a nervous breakdown.
In the parish ‘Offering a lifeline’ project, we will be splitting funds raised between Sr Annie’s work and other Aid to the Church in Need projects in Syria.
Such projects include providing emergency help – shelter, blankets, mattresses and clothing – for 2,000 families in what is called the Valley of the Christians – a network of ancient villages – and a further 2,000 in the city of Homs.
Aid to the Church in Need specifically helps priests. Returning to Aleppo diocese, we will be helping projects paying the living costs of more than 30 Latin-rite Catholic priests who have somehow continued their ministry in spite of the dangers.
Some church communities in Syria are – somehow – coming back to life. Father Halemba, ACN’s Middle East projects coordinator, told us how he’d recently been to Maaloula, a largely Christian town with shrines to fourth century saints Sergius and Bacchus. I went there before the war and heard the ancient Aramaic language spoken there – the language of Christ. Fierce fighting took place in Maaloula in September 2013 but it is now relatively safe. Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch, Gregorios III is working with Aid to the Church in Need to enable the Church to effectively re-start its ministry amid the damage and destruction. The Patriarch told me and I quote: “Our mission, our role – even in the harsh situation in the Arab world – must be to be a presence so that – as St John’s Gospel puts it ‘people may have life and have it more abundantly.”
Willing as we are as a parish to support the people – the faithful – so that they may have life – and have it more abundantly, we invite you to become part of our parish ‘lifeline of hope to Syria’. Parish events including the International Mass, the Men’s Christmas Pudding Night, and a whole host of other activities will be in aid of our appeal. If you want to organise a fund-raising event, do please get in touch. Do please look at the display at the back. Pick up the special prayer card at the back. Visit the Aid to the Church in Need stall. Now is the time to get the ball rolling. Do please make a donation. There are Gift Aid envelopes available – do use them so we can get the tax back. Alternatively you can start saving and make your donation in due course.
Let me finish by quoting from an Email we received from Sr Annie last week. She wrote: “I would like to thank each and every one of you who is willing to alleviate the suffering of our people and remind them that they are not alone. May the Lord Jesus Christ bless you and reward you for your compassion and love.”
Message to our Parish of St Anselm’s from Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria:
“From the country which gave the world St Paul and so many devoted disciples of the Lord, I would like to thank the people of St Anselm’s, Tooting Bec for standing shoulder to shoulder with us, your brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering their own unique Way of the Cross.”
“Your compassion – your gifts of love and self-sacrifice – give hope and light to us who exists in a world darkened by despair. May God bless you and your loved ones – we will never forget you in our prayers and in our hearts.”
“Thank you for all you are doing. We pray for you and we ask the Lord to bless you – to bless every one who helps the Church in Syria”.
“And we bless you – we ask him to bless you and give you happiness in your life, health, serenity and give you also the joy of being with him now and forever. Amen.”
An extract from a letter from Sr Annie to St Anselm’s Parish
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
First of all I would like to thank you for your concern and support, your help means a lot to each person and make them feel they are not alone in this crisis that they are passing.
The situation that Syria is passing is very painful particularly in Aleppo and Al Hassakeh.
In each family we find a dramatic story: some are killed, some are kidnapped and others emigrated; many others were injured or lost a part of the bodies.
And most of them are surviving grace to the aids that reach them.
The fear of the coming winter is threating everyone, especially with the high cost of the fuel in case it exists.
Last year people had to use other combustible materials to get warm and some of these materials damage the health.
One lady told me that they burn the wood of the sofa to get warm.
I would like to thank each one who offered and is still offering to elevate the suffering of our people and make them feel that they are not left alone but many brothers and sisters are concerned about them.
May our Lord Jesus Christ bless you and reward you with many graces. United in the heart of Jesus and Mary.
Sr Annie RJM, Aleppo, Syria.
A special message from Sister Annie Demerjian:
‘…until the LORD from Heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all…my city.’ Lamentations 3:50-51
“This is the constant cry of our people as they struggle with their daily life. Listening to their plea for help, I would like to thank you on their behalf for all you do to alleviate their suffering. God bless you all.”
“Thank you all for giving us hope that the joy of a new dawn may arise in Syria after the tears of these years of war.”
Sr Annie is providing basic services for families in need in Syria
- £41.23 to provide a month’s supply of fuel (200 litres of oil) for one family.
- £117.14 in rent charges to house a family for a month.
- £26.30 for one month’s supply of electricity for one family.