ACN: Father Charbel, what was your impression when you were asked to take on this responsibility?
To tell you the truth I was honoured but also overwhelmed. I know Syria well, and I know how desperate the situation is among the population. I am sure that only the Grace of God can give them consolation. I had told myself as much, and exactly at that moment I was asked to come with this image of Our Lady, carrying the message of the Truthful Mercy of Our Lord! I didn’t feel worthy of it. Nor did I know how I was going to convey consolation amid that level of destruction. My Superiors gave their agreement to ACN and I have been on the road ever since.
How have you been received by the communities?
I soon realized that the mission with the icon has an impact at different levels, not only among the remaining faithful. For this reason, I decided to ask other priests, friends of mine, to come along on the trip, both local and foreign priests.
The Syrians were very pleasantly surprised to see two “foreign” priests coming to see them. They accepted this testimony as proof they had not been forgotten.
When we arrive in a parish, the local priest receives us warmly and calls on all the faithful to come and celebrate Holy Mass.
Quite soon I realized that the communities were looking at us with intense hope in their eyes, with a question more like “tell us how to live now!” And then we started talking about the culture of non-violence that has been the characteristic of Syrian Christians over the centuries.
Which programme do you offer in each parish?
With the help of the Jesuits in Homs and other villages around, we set up a seminar called “Christians and Leadership for Peace”. This consists of a lecture for teenagers and young adults in particular. To our surprise, because it was in the evening and it was cold, large groups of youth started to fill up the rooms. They asked so many practical questions about how to actually live according to the faith in their daily life that I was asked to come back. I only had one more day in Homs, but we accepted, and the room was full again. Since then we had a “snowball” effect in such way that when I arrive in a city, a programme is already set up, frequently including a procession, a prayer, a Holy Mass and at least one “Leadership for Peace” seminar.
What is the attitude of these young men and women amid the unstable situation?
The actions around the icon and their responses lead me to believe that they indeed receive consolation in their souls. They are very happy to hear the Pope’s frequent appeals to the entire Church to pray for them. These Syrian Christians are, in fact, an example for the entire Church.
Have you been in northern Syria, where tensions are high?
Yes, the first week of March. Thanks to the Grace of God, I visited both Qamishli and Al-Hasakah (Hassaké), where tensions have diminished only a little along the border with Turkey, near Iraq. Christians were asking for the visit of the icon and the message carried along with the youth seminar. I met the few Christians who, despite the war, remained.
What is your message to ACN benefactors?
I would like to tell them to continue supporting these actions in spite of the persistent tensions and the media reports that everyone can read. Life continues in Syrian cities amid situations that we can hardly imagine. Little children go to school, Christian shopkeepers open every morning and hope. Use all the contacts and opportunities you have to stop the embargo, which is making everything so expensive inside Syria, and this includes finding a solution to Lebanon’s financial situation. Action from outside is necessary before the problem becomes bigger than Lebanon and Syria. Prayer, yes, are needed, but so is political action vis-à-vis those responsible for the financial and political crises that are making things even harder for the victims of the war. I invite everybody to come in large numbers for the conclusion of the pilgrimage in Homs, from the 29th to the 31st of May.
ACN has been able to support a total of 900 projects for Syria since 2011, to the tune of 38 million euros (US$41 million). This has enabled many Christian families to stay in their homeland.