Thursday, July 6, 2017

Met Saba (Esber): The Consolations of Homs

Arabic original, published June 5, 2017, here.

The Consolations of Homs

The Archdiocese of Homs is the second most numerous after that of Damascus. The destruction and displacement that has afflicted the city of Homs has afflicted it. Many of its people have fled it, for the most part heading for neighboring regions that are safer, particularly Wadi al-Nasara. Half of our diocesan complex has been destroyed there. The damage affecting some churches ranges from almost complete to partial, but its great loss is represented by the emptying-out of the Old City and neighborhoods adjacent to it of their inhabitants. Stone brings back people and becomes empty ruins without them.

Therefore her bishop and priests did not leave her. Those who were in the combat zone, along with their parishes, took refuge in safe areas within Homs. He has continued to care for the flock entrusted to him with the strength, ability and acumen given to him.

Despite the current hardship, some of the priests, with the blessing of their bishop and with the cooperation of donor organizations, have initiated development projects in support of those who have been affected. Around 92 people live there: a year-round nursery in the Church of Our Lady (the Armenian Quarter) takes in 150 boys and girls. There is a sewing and embroidery workshop that produces ecclesiastical vestments, a factory for producing sponges and upholstery, a workshop for producing winter clothing, and a cattle farm. It should be mentioned that the income from these projects is dedicated to supporting affected families and to encourage them to set up small businesses.

Needs are great and varied and require enormous budgets. But the believer trades with the balance given to him and offers it to God, who blesses and multiplies honest effort, no matter how humble. Let the believer not forget the words of the Lord, "And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward" (Matthew 10:42).

Likewise the Patriarchate, in cooperation with donor organizations, has launched the "Let's Build" campaign to help the families of the Old City to rebuild their homes and return to them. 751 houses and three schools have been rebuilt in addition to a shelter center as of the time of this writing. By the end of this month, 110 more houses will have been rebuilt.

You may hear some grumbling here and there. Those who lack love justify their laziness with criticism, not caring for those who are exhausted, whose frustration and despair increase on account of his negativity. Those who are thankful and understanding, though they are few, have the blessing of contributing to raising the spirits of those who are exhausted by their examples, strengthening their hopes in their Church and their nation.

The zeal of the priests and the flock, particularly the youth, spreads consolation, lessens suffering, and bears witness to the terrifying destruction and its horrors. From the grave of the martyred Father Frans in his monastery in the heart of the Old City, I raised a prayer for the repose of his soul, for the souls of those who have died, for the strengthening of those who still struggle, refusing to leave their precious land of Syria, watered with the blood of martyrs and saints.

It is recounted in the life of St Paisios the Athonite (d. 1993) that on a visit to Australia he felt, while on the airplane, a powerful spiritual stirring. So he asked his companions, "Where are we flying  now?" The response: "Over Syria." He wept and said, "It is the land of martyrs and saints."

I was blessed to share with the people of Homs in their joy at the return of their diocesan complex to life. The patriarchate, by direction of His Beatitude John X, has taken on the costs of rebuilding the diocesan complex, located in Old Homs, refurnishing it, and restoring its service to what it was before 2012.

The diocesan choir served the prayer of thanksgiving. More than 60 young people, performing impeccably, makes you feel optimistic when you learn that they did not cease their study of music even in the most difficult times through which the city passed. Choirs of adults and young people that would be dreamed of in any diocese.

You could feel in the eyes of the faithful who had come to celebrate the occasion a clear joy that was at the same time mixed with a deep sorrow. There is no doubt that what the people of Old Homs and its surroundings experienced was very bitter and hard to forget. But the desire to return and build anew was stronger for them than the sorrow over what had passed. Their enthusiasm and determination inspires confidence not only in the return of Homs, but of all Syria. There is no doubt that the return of the diocesan complex to serving it, starting from its original location, will encourage many to return to their homes.

The Church of Saint George in the Hamidiyya neighborhood, which was almost entirely destroyed, has a different story. In 2005 the bishop of the diocese laid the cornerstone for a new church that was bigger than the old and crumbling one. By 2012, infrastructure work had been completed. But work stopped as our country entered into its trial and the old church was completely destroyed. As soon as the area was regained and Old Homs was liberated, work to rebuild it began. Many benefactors contributed to this symbolic project and it was brought back better than it had been before it was destroyed. The first liturgy was celebrated in it, after the completion of construction work, this past April 23, on the occasion of the feast day of its patron, Saint George the Victorious.

The church's pastor informed me that approximately 450 families have returned to live in the neighborhood, or about a third of the parish that had previously existed. It is a good number in record time. Despite the many blows that have struck the city, hope still remains strong among its people that she will return to life. In the Old City, you see closed shops and homes beside others that have been rebuilt and reopened. People have come back to live their and to lead their previous life on their land.

Our country has passed through extremely difficult historical circumstances. What it is going through now may be the most dangerous. One who observes the history of the Levant realizes that its fate is to be the battleground of great powers. This has happened on its land since the third millennium before Christ and continues to today. But the Christians have remained there, despite the agony of history and its sorrows for them. It is a great miracle and palpable proof of the activity of the Holy Spirit. Someone rightly said, and this in any case is our faith, that God is the Master of history and that He often bends it at the last minute, turning the course of its evil in the opposite direction.

In light of this faith, we read our history, our present and our future as a message of witness to the power and importance of love and of living witness to the one who conquered death and gave us new life. For you to believe in the risen Christ means that you rise after every fall to live anew.

I was still studying theology at the Monastery of Our Lady of Balamand in Lebanon when His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius IV laid the cornerstone of Balamand University. This was in 1988, when Lebanon was ablaze from the war that began in 1975. Journalists asked him, "You're building a university as the country is collapsing?" He replied, "If the fate of others is to destroy, our fate is to build."

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