Feature Story, 10.04.2018 / Syria by Josué Villalón
Father George Maamary, parish priest of the church of the Assumption, which is close to the fortress, is asking our help to rebuild their church so that the families can return there soon
ACN (Josué Villalón, Qalat’al Hosn).– Qalat’al Hosn is a village in western Syria in a region known as the Valley of the Christians, best known for the imposing fortress the Krak des Chevaliers, which dominates the area. The castle is a World Heritage Site, one of the historic jewels of Syria and a place which before the war attracted tourists from all over the world.
“A group of Salafists and Muslim extremists arrived here, many of them from Lebanon, crossing over the border, which is only about 30 km (20 miles) away. They seized control of the fortress and the village”, explains Father George Maamary, parish priest of the local Catholic community. “As soon as they arrived, they came to the church where I was living, forced their way in and abducted me. They beat me up, so thatafterwards I had to have an operation on my shoulder. Thanks be to God, my imprisonment did not last long; they exchanged me for a jihadist fighter who had been captured by the government.”
At that time the village had around 25,000 inhabitants of various different religions, most of them Sunni and Shia Muslims. There were also around 300 Christians, living around the only Christian church, that of Our Lady of the Assumption, which belongs to the Greek Catholic Church.
As soon as news of the abduction of Father Maamary came to the ears of his Christian neighbours, they all abandoned their homes for fear of suffering the same fate. “It was a warning. Since then not one Christian family has returned to live here.” That was six years ago.
The rebel groups had wanted to turn the fortress into a second Palmyra. A world-renowned historic site, and also one of great strategic and sentimental importance for the Syrian people. The fortress was damaged by the rebel groups and by the fighting to recover it, along with a considerable part of the village itself. In 2014 the castle and the village were reconquered by the Syrian army. This was the only place in the Valley of the Christians where there was fighting. For the rest this region has become a place where many refugees now live, since it is one of the more peaceful parts of the country.
But before this there was looting, and among the places that were looted were the church and the homes of the Christians. “The life of the community used to revolve around the church”, Father George explains to a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “We had a basketball pitch and rooms for catechesis and other gatherings. You can see how everything is now”, he adds. The church is also linked to various other buildings, and there was formerly a hotel named after John Paul II, which welcomed tourists who had come to visit the fortress. They also had other centres, with up to 17 shops, a restaurant, a cafe, and various souvenir and gift shops.
After the fighting, the conflict continued. The vengeance against the Sunnis was terrible on the part of the government troops, linked to the Assad government and pro-Shiite. Father George had to hasten back and mark the houses of the Christians with black crosses, so that the soldiers did not burn them down also.
“Before the fighting, life between Christians and Muslims was good”, said Father George. Now the war has left a terrible wound that will take years to heal. “It is safe again now in this region, but there is still no electricity or water”, he adds. As a result the Christians have been unable to return, despite the fact that the village was liberated all of four years ago. “The sense of helplessness of these families is very great; they are still uprooted and living in other villages of the Valley of the Christians, such as Marmarita and Kafra, only 10 km away from here, and yet they still cannot return.”
Around the church of the Assumption there are a few houses that people have begun to rebuild. One of them belongs to the family of Bassam Maamary, a cousin of Father George and himself a priest. “I have begun to rebuild the house with my own money, in order to show my neighbours that it is possible to return, that there is still hope”, he says.
He is being helped with the electric wiring by a young man named Wagdi Yazzi. He too is from the village of Al Hosn. “It won’t take much for us to return; but first we need the government to reconnect the water and electricity”, he says, adding, “Life here was very pleasant and peaceful. We had contact with people from all over the world and we were a very open village.”
Another neighbour appears, walking up an alleyway. He is Samir Bashur and he explains that he is also working on his house and that he comes here from time to time, little by little repairing the damage. He thinks that if people are to return here permanently they will first have to rebuild the church. “It is a place that is very important to us, where we celebrate the most important feasts together, where we meet and pray together, along with our parish priest.”
Father George assures that he has not lost contact with the other families. “We are doing the impossible to help them on a daily basis, and so that they will be able to return to their homes.” He thanks ACN for the aid provided for the care of these refugees, and he is also hoping to be able to begin soon on the rebuilding of their church.
“We are praying for peace in our country. And also for all the people who are helping us from other countries. You are all very welcome to come here. We need the people and the tourists to return.”
And finally Father Maamary expresses his gratitude for the support of Pope Francis, who has sent aid directly each year for the families and the priests. “He is a humble man, he is doing great things for Syria, including through his prayer and his messages of peace.”