22 October 2020

In the Footsteps of the Nazarene

His Excellency Antoine Audo, 
Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Aleppo

Aleppo is one of the cities most affected by the conflict in Syria, given the nearly daily bombings that have taken place over the course of the last four years. Its bishop, His Excellency Antoine Audo, begins by affirming: “Christians are not interested in the war and do not have an organization to defend themselves. So, because of the war there is a great deal of emigration. Many young people leave Syria because of the danger they live in and because Syria does not offer enough work to make a living today.”

When the war started, on March 15, 2011, the Christian population in Aleppo numbered 170,000. Christian communities were very active and involved in the society of Aleppo, which had 2.5 million inhabitants. After five years of war, the city has been left with little more than 30,000 Christians. Even though the Church tries to maintain its historical presence in Syria, “many Christians are leaving because of the war, unemployment, and poverty.” It is a sad reality, given the fact that Aleppo is just fifty kilometers from Antioch, the place where Christians were first called Christians, at the time of St. Peter and St. Paul.

The Bishop of Aleppo explains: “We used to have fanatics attacking us every so often, because we were a minority in a country with a Muslim majority. But now, there is a wave of Islamic fanaticism throughout the world. They are more organized, with arms and with Daesh, this group that wants to establish Islamic states. So, this is a new situation and Christians are fearing for their future.”

In response to a question regarding the causes of the conflict, Bishop Audo makes a profound analysis. “There is a political dimension, a religious dimension, and an economic dimension. In my opinion, when I see the evolution of the war, on a national level the conflict is an economic one. Given the fact that we are facing an international economic crisis, arms and petroleum negotiations contribute to causing the war. The most powerful countries try to maintain a high economic standard. Pope Francis has spoken about this on several occasions, when he speaks about the crisis in Syria, saying that it is an issue of economics and arms, interests in buying and selling arms. That is the first reason for the war.

The second reason is debated on a regional level. In the Middle East and in the Muslim Arab world, there are many clashes and tensions between Sunnis and Shiites. The Sunnis are under the authority of Saudi Arabia and the Shiites are under the authority of Iran. So, we have two important countries, each with its own interests. And on top of all that, there are also religious ideologies. Each one of them wants to be the head of the Arab and Muslim world. That is the second reason.

We could also speak of a third level, formed by a mix of politics, religion, and economy. Syria has a Sunni majority. They are 80% of the population. Shiites are the minority, but they are the ones with power and authority in Syria. They are not alone. There are other minorities, but this is the main reason for the conflict. Although, this conflict is being fueled from outside the country by those who want to destroy Syria.”

Faced with such a complicated situation, Bishop Audo suggests a political instead of a military solution from within Syria itself. “The different groups in Syria should dialogue in order to reach a solution and stop destroying Syria. If the war continues, it could last for years and spread to other countries. Thus, we are seeking an international decision that would favor peace, something that would benefit us all. With the war, everyone is losing everything.”

The Church in Syria is involved in an important service to others. “All our time is spent helping poor families. All the Syrian families have been impoverished. Every day we take care of many people and offer them aid. All the priests and religious in all the communities are also aware of this important task at the moment, which is a humanitarian effort to meet the needs of families. In fact, as President of Caritas, I dedicate 80% of my time to organizing Caritas’ services in Syria.”

This shepherd’s heart suffers in seeing the hardships and death of so many Syrian Christians. Although Western news sources refuse to make it news (and purposely silence certain facts), one of the objectives of this conflict is to finish off with Christian communities, attacking them mercilessly. Bishop Audo affirms: “We have witnesses. In Ma’loula, for example, several Christians died because they refused to become Muslim. I am very familiar with these kinds of situations. In the region of Djezireh, in northeastern Syria, nearly thirty Chaldean Christian towns were attacked. Many of its inhabitants were kidnapped and murdered because they refused to become Islam. It’s terrible. And yet, it is nothing new. Our history is full of persecutions.”

Facing an interminable war nearly five years’ long, with unbearable days and endless nights with bombings and under fire, we are left wondering where Bishop Audo finds strength to keep going, leading his flock. Bishop Audo is very honest in responding. “That is not an easy question. I find strength, above all, in my faith. Faith and prayer are what give me strength. Then, when I see so many people suffering… I can’t abandon them. I can’t just leave. I have to stay with them. I’m their shepherd and am responsible for the Church here. Listening to the families, helping them and offering them support is what gives me the strength to continue here among them.”

Bishop Antoine Audo concludes his interview with a message for us all: “First of all, I would ask that they pray for us, that we may continue to fight for peace. I would also ask that they take interest in the truth and not only listen to the news, because there are many political interests. I would ask that they be understanding, that they seek peace.

Moreover, for me it is very important that Christians in the West be proud of their faith, of their Christian faith. It’s important that they understand who God is and the salvation that has come to us through Jesus Christ. May they not be afraid. As Pope Francis says, may they not continue in the culture of indifference and consumerism. As Christians, we are responsible for others and we should be proud of our faith.”