Standing in the square and closing my eyes tight shut, I could just about imagine what it must have been like in days gone by: the place thronging with people, the faithful chanting, churchgoers flooding in and out of the great cathedrals that stood proud and tall close by.
What a difference a few years can make. Here, at the heart of Aleppo’s ancient Old City, the ravages of war have left their cruel mark almost everywhere you look.
As we stood there on a cold winter’s morning, our guide, Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, drew our attention to the blackened façade of a Church-run orphanage that occupied one side of the square. “Many people died there,” he said sadly, adding that the brother of a priest had died in the block of flats next door when a bomb set the whole place alight.
Behind the archbishop the once-grand Maronite cathedral stood with a vast hole in the middle where a bomb had smashed through the nave. Nearby, his own Greek Catholic cathedral was a shadow of its former self. Archbishop Jeanbart said that he had had to abandon the site four years ago for fear of abduction, a fate that had befallen two fellow Aleppo archbishops – Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi.
Kidnap was one threat; being killed on the spot was another: the archbishop estimates that 60 bombs of one form or another landed in this part of the Old City over the course of the war.
On December 23, the guns finally fell silent and an apparent victory was handed to Syria’s President Assad in the battle for the city. Today, the cacophony of bombs is replaced by an eerie silence. Will the people come back? Not yet. With a political settlement still a distant hope, people are just marking time.
In the meantime, the full cost of war can at last be counted. Coming to Aleppo as part of a team from the charity Aid to the Church in Need to assess the ongoing pastoral and emergency needs of the people, we learned that the Christian community has fallen from perhaps 250,000 to barely 30,000. This is a decline far sharper than that of Aleppo’s overall population, which has fallen from about 2.5 million to some 1.5 million.
The depletion of the city’s Christian population has set alarm bells ringing: Aleppo is the latest to join the list of places in the Middle East where Christians have become an endangered species. In major parts of the Old City, large numbers of displaced Muslims have moved in, becoming the majority in what were – until the war – primarily Christian districts.
Such developments have unsettled many Christians, we were told. We spoke to Basil Syoufi, aged 22. Basil is married to 27-year-old Mariana Tahan, and they have a baby daughter, Christa. “We are already a minority,” said Basil. “A lot of young people have left.” The Latin Rite Catholic, a law student at Aleppo University, said he and his wife found it difficult to imagine raising their child in a place that was still so unstable.
For young people, the incentive to get away is increased by the threat of a call-up into Syria’s armed forces. It is difficult to exaggerate the sense of calamity for a people in a city which had been a core industrial hub serving not just Syria but also much of the Middle East.
As for Basil, himself disabled, there is the added blow that Syria’s medical services, once free at the point of delivery, are now highly degraded. One consultant said there were 9,000 doctors in Aleppo before the war; now there are just 3,000.
But while there are some Aleppo Christians like Basil who clearly feel the pull of emigration, there are others who are determined to stay. Visiting an emergency aid distribution centre, one of many across the city, we met Rana Anty. The 27-year-old oversees the registration process to ensure that recipients receive what they need but no more. Rana said that she and her fiancé wanted to build a future in Aleppo.
She said: “I don’t want to travel into the unknown. The situation is now much better. I don’t want to have to start studying again.”
Others were less certain and were anxious to see the ceasefire become permanent before making plans.
Whatever doubts the faithful have about staying in Aleppo, the bishops and other Church leaders speak with one voice. At a meeting of bishops, the local heads of seven Christian denominations declared to us their intent to build a future for the Church in Aleppo. One even said that to persuade people from Aleppo now in Europe to return to their native city, he would be prepared to pay their flight tickets. Another prelate, Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, said: “Everything we are trying to do is geared towards securing a future for Christians.”
To what extent can the faithful be persuaded? If the question of security is the predominant factor, the provision of essential services – housing, warmth and basic utilities – are a close second. With the city’s electric grid bombed out, people are dependent on very expensive privately owned generators. We were told that it costs the equivalent of a third of the average public sector wage for the ongoing use of two light bulbs and a television.
Food and other basic provisions – until now only available on the black market – are unaffordable, especially in a city where so many people are jobless. Aleppo resident Joseph Hallaq, 55, told us: “People constantly say to us: ‘Let us find a job and we will be able to stand on our own two feet again.’” Joseph told us that his house was heavily damaged in a bomb blast and that early plans to repair houses would be crucial in persuading people to stay. He speaks with some authority as he is part of a team of volunteers who work with Aleppo’s Sister Annie Demerjian, supporting the most needy.
Aid to the Church in Need has prioritised helping Sister Annie’s outreach to 650 families and so it was a wonderful experience to accompany members of her group to visit some of those they help. We met Annie and Sarkis, an elderly couple whose fourth-floor flat in Aleppo’s Midan district directly abutted rebel-held east Aleppo. Conflict had brought the two together and they married only last year. They told me their story of love on the front line in an account which also related how, at the height of the bombardment, they used to hide in their tiny bathroom or even in the stairwell.
“Surviving the war was a miracle. And your help is a miracle too,” Annie said, praising especially the work of Vivian, an Aleppo University student. The 25-year-old risked her life to bring the couple food vouchers and funds to pay electricity and fuel to keep their flat warm.
Afterwards, stepping out into the cold night and picking our way along the bomb-damaged streets, I dared not ask Vivian what would have happened had she and Sister Annie’s group not come to the elderly couple’s aid. Indeed, for the suffering people of Aleppo as a whole – and perhaps especially for the city’s Christian community – it is a chilling thought to imagine what would happen if we forget them now.
John Pontifex is head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (UK)
This article first appeared in the February 3 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here