Ministry in Aleppo is about keeping hope alive, priests say

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sedat Suna, EPA

By Gaby Maniscalco

CITY (CNS) — Even in the midst of constant bombing, Jesuit and Salesian
priests remain in war-torn Aleppo, Syria, trying to create a sense of normalcy
for those unable to leave.

Father Sami Hallak has been keeping a crisis journal during his time in Aleppo,
narrating daily life as he and hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents
cope with the reality of a war that began in March 2011.

late January, Father Hallak wrote, Islamic State militants “cut the water for
reasons still unknown.” Although Jesuit Refugee Service, where Father Hallak
works, has a large water tank, the reserves are used with care.

it is designated for drinking, he said, the water is reused two or three times.
“If one takes a bath, he puts hot water in a bucket, and the bathing water is carefully
collected in a vessel.” The water is then used in the toilets, to wash clothes
or to clean the floor.

portion of Father Hallak’s journal was published Feb. 22 by the Rome-based
missionary news agency, AsiaNews.

his Valentine’s Day entry Feb. 14, he suggested Aleppo sweethearts could use
the slogan, “I love you even if you stink.” And, he said, “the
most popular gift is a red can … filled with water.”

five years of fighting, according to the United Nations, more than 250,000
people have been killed, 4.6 million Syrians have been forced to leave the
country and 6.6 million are internally displaced.

Hallak said he tries to keep up people’s morale in his homilies, even suggesting
that the water will be turned back on within a week. A positive attitude, he
said, “is our only way to survive.”

priests in the area have taken a similar approach. Salesian Father Luciano
Buratti, who also works in Aleppo, told the Salesian news agency ANS, Feb. 19,
“Our community has chosen to continue our activities as if nothing has
happened. We try to offer families a place where they can breathe stability and
harmony even in the midst of chaos.”

he said, “nobody can understand what’s happening, and we don’t know whom
we can trust. We were preparing with young people a play to celebrate Don
Bosco, and we have to stop because several of them died during the bombing.”

people need hope and stability, so both parish and youth center events continue
to operate as they did before the fighting, Father Buratti said. He also noted
that the people remaining Aleppo are those who do not have the means to leave.

the volatile environment, people continue to look for signs of hope, Father
Hallak said. In a diary entry, he recounted how a statue at St. Bonaventure Church
was damaged by government forces during the fighting.

a conversation with a plumber Feb.18, he said he was surprised and confused to
hear the man call the broken statue a miracle. The plumber said: “The face
of the virgin and almost the entire front of the statue remain intact. Her
hands clasped in prayer are slightly broken. It’s a miracle, Father!”

listening to the plumber’s words, he wrote that many people in Aleppo also
forgot that the statue was destroyed and “remember only parts that remained
‘miraculously’ intact.”

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