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A deserted street in Aleppo after Syrian authorities ordered social distancing to curb the spread of Covid-19. A deserted street in Aleppo after Syrian authorities ordered social distancing to curb the spread of Covid-19.  (AFP or licensors)

Syria: hope of the Risen Christ beyond the darkness of Covid-19

Caught between the illusion of the end of a conflict and the Covid-19 threat, Syrian Christians are looking forward to an Easter of hope amid lockdown, says the Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo.

By Robin Gomes

In Syria, churches are closed, and Masses and liturgies are streamed live as in many parts of the world.  The spread of the coronavirus pandemic could mean a “disaster” in the Middle Eastern nation, now in its 10th year of the war. 

Latin Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, the Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo, made the observation to AsiaNews, expressing the feeling of his Catholics caught between the fear of an epidemic and the desire to live the most important celebration of their faith. 

With 19 cases and 2 deaths, the coronavirus threat in Syria is relatively low.  The government has ordered a curfew from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am from Sunday to Thursday, and 12:00 pm to 6:00 am on Friday and Saturday.   

Only pharmacies, bakeries, food stores and taxis are allowed to operate.   With public transport disrupted, there is no way of travelling between cities and regions that are far from one another, the bishop said.

Hope amid fear

The northern city of Aleppo was the largest of Syrian cities before the civil war erupted in 2011.   It was a key battleground in the war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels who wanted to overthrow him.  Today, the rebels have been practically vanquished and pushed into just a few neighbourhoods. 

“With the liberation of the city and the end to indiscriminate bombing of civilian neighbourhoods,” the bishop said, people gave a sigh of relief.   He noted that for a short while, "the airport and the highway between Aleppo and Damascus had reopened, but now everything is closed down due to the virus”.  “The moment we seemed to be returning to a normal life, everything stopped again."

According to the 72-year bishop, with a healthcare system crippled by the war, the fear of the spread of the coronavirus is "high".  50% of the hospitals are useless or non-functional. Some 6.2 million people are displaced within the country, living in overcrowded camps and situations with scarce sanitation, water and hygiene.  In the event of an outbreak, he said, it is impossible for the country to fight the pandemic.     

Bishop Abou Khazen recalled that even during the worst years of the conflict, Holy Week celebrations “were packed with the faithful”.  Now, “with people forced to stay at home, it seems like an endless Holy Saturday where darkness seems to have taken over and Christ remains entombed in the gloom of the Holy Sepulchre.”  “But as St Peter says Jesus went down to hell to announce the resurrection ... this is the good news, this is our source of hope," Bishop Abou Khazen said. 

The Apostolic Vicar highlighted the faith of the people saying as many as 6,000 participate in liturgies streamed live.  However, he said that churches are opened occasionally for confessions and for visits be groups that maintain social distancing. 

Sacramental life 

Unable to come together to celebrate the faith is what in the Arabic language is called “a week of sorrows”, the bishop explained.  “We feel like a father who has lost his children, but in reality, it is not as bad as that ... it is only a temporary detachment".

Ten years of war followed by the coronavirus emergency, the bishop said, are an invitation to rethink "the country, lives and the Church”. 

Noting that there is a thirst for the sacraments in many families, he said, “We must give more value to the domestic church, strengthen the local Church and put the sacraments back at the centre of our faith.”

Solidarity

The virus, Bishop Abou Khazen said, has not only united the people of Aleppo but also of the world, knocking down many walls.  "I was surprised by the solidarity of our people with Italy, the many prayers for the victims of the pandemic and for all the Italian people,” he said.

“The message of the risen Christ,” he said, “is an invitation not to lose hope, but to live these moments with joy despite the difficulties".  (Source: Asia News)

10 April 2020, 13:36