By Oliver Maksan
IT’S a special mission that Sister Maria de Nazaret has committed herself to.
The Argentinian sister from the Institute of the Incarnate Word has been living in Aleppo for two months, the former million-strong metropolis in the north of Syria which has been the subject of fierce fighting for years.
She worked for a long time in Gaza City and knows the flash points in the Middle East.
“Our task in this country is very special. We are constantly confronted with people’s suffering,” she said.
“The war is having a profoundly deleterious effect on human dignity.
“People are losing their loved ones, their freedom and their rights due to the violence.
“On top of this there is poverty and a lack of the most basic things, such as electricity and water.”
She lives in the Apostolic Vicariate of the Latin Rite in Aleppo together with some others sisters.
The Catholics in Syria come under the Vicariate.
“We work in a hostel for girls studying at the university. The institution belongs to the Vicariate. We also take care of the sacristy and the liturgy in the cathedral,” she said.
“On top of that we look after the faithful who visit the cathedral. The main task of devotees at places like this is to listen to the people who are suffering, speak words of hope to them and to help them the best one can to satisfy their most important needs. Certainly only the words of Our Lord Jesus Christ can bring about the miracle of sowing the seed of hope in these souls.”
Sister Maria Nazaret places all her hope in prayer.
“Please pray for us every day. We need this. But we also include you in our daily prayers.”
On the hazardous journey to Aleppo Sister Maria de Nazaret was able to see something of the devastation, which the three-year-long war has brought to the country.
“We saw a lot of towns which had been completely destroyed and were uninhabited. The war is really a terrible and cruel thing,” she said.
Dozens of churches, some from as far back as the 4th century, have been damaged or destroyed.
“During the night of February 20 an armed gang broke into the Church of Our Lady of Yabroud, a 4th century church,” Archbishop Jean Abdo Arbach said.
“They destroyed the fittings in the church, smashed the crucifix, threw the icons on the floor and tore the pages out of the evangeliary. Then the gang burned the altar.
“To date our archdiocese has had 96 martyrs. The fate of 26 people is uncertain.”
More than 1800 families from his bishopric have left their houses to seek safety within Syria or to flee directly into countries such as Lebanon.
“During my visits to the houses of the families and from the reports by my priests I have established that everyone has been impoverished by the tragic events,” he said.
“We have begun to grant about 600 families monthly assistance.”
Despite all the hardships, the archbishop sees no sign that religious life is collapsing.
“During the crisis there has been a major return to the faith and to prayer by the people who have not left their villages,” he said.
“In spite of the fear, the bombs and the explosions, the families are remaining loyal to their religious convictions.”
He is concerned about the poor who receive assistance from the Church, as well as the sick and the refugees.
“Our Church needs help of all kinds – spiritual, material, medical and psychological. The Church in this part of Syria will be in real danger if we don’t react quickly,” he said.