Catholics in Aleppo usher in Holy Week with Mass on Palm Sunday Catholics in Aleppo usher in Holy Week with Mass on Palm Sunday 

Good Friday in Aleppo: Suffering and hope

Fr Tony O’Riordan, who is coordinating the Jesuit Refugee Service’s efforts in Syria, speaks about the humanitarian crisis in the country, and how local Christians are celebrating Holy Week amidst the ruins.

By Joseph Tulloch

Christians in the war-devastated and earthquake-devastated Syrian city of Aleppo are celebrating the Easter Triduum, the holiest period in the Christian calendar, amid the ruins of war.

Holy Thursday, on 6 April, also marked exactly two months since the deadly earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, which left more than 50,000 dead and around 1.5 million homeless.  

Fr Tony O’Riordan SJ, who has been in Aleppo since the disaster, is co-ordinating the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS)'s humanitarian response in the area.

In an interview with Vatican Radio he talks about how the country’s Christians – an ancient community dating back two thousand years – are approaching the holiest period of the Church’s year, stressing their “real connection with the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus.”

Listen to the interview with JRS' Fr Tony O'Riordan

Syria’s Good Friday

“For over twelve years,” Fr O’Riordan tells me, “people have lived Holy week in Syria and in Aleppo. Twelve years of war, grinding poverty, the pandemic, and then the earthquake. They perpetually live a Good Friday.”

Destruction in Aleppo following the earthquake
Destruction in Aleppo following the earthquake

Even before the earthquake, the Irish Jesuit stresses, the situation was “desperate”. The disaster thus compounded what was already “a very, very difficult struggle for survival, for the basics of life, for food, for shelter, for access to medical care, and just for having adequate income to survive.”

The only silver lining in the situation, he notes, is that winter has given way to spring, making life easier for those who have lost their homes or were struggling to heat them. “Mother Nature has helped us greatly,” Fr O’Riordan notes, “so that’s probably the biggest thing that has improved.”

JRS’ work on the ground

JRS, Fr O’Riordan says, has managed to distribute aid to around 40,000 people in the weeks since the quake, and give around 11,000 access to medical care.

The trauma of the earthquake, however, he stresses, has left people of Aleppo with psychological as well as material needs. “What they lived through, those first 24 hours of two massive earthquakes, several aftershocks, and the whole sense of uncertainty, led to a massive sense of near-death experience and a loss of safety. This will take a long time for people to recover from.”

JRS is thus providing psychological as well as material aid, he says, aiming to make space “for people to be heard”, and thus for the “spirit of God … to penetrate to the wounds and lead to some healing.”

“I think this is an immense need,” he emphasises. “There are some people who can feed themselves materially, but they will struggle without support to find this inner peace and this inner strength, to continue to live with the immense, immense challenges here in Aleppo.”

Aleppo citizens gather to celebrate Easter Week
Aleppo citizens gather to celebrate Easter Week

Holy Week amidst the ruins

Because of the suffering they have undergone, Fr O’Riordan says, Syrians are “situated well for the story we reenact in Holy Week. There's a real connection with the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus.”

“When it comes to ritual celebration,” he notes, “because it connects so powerfully with their lives, the ritual takes on a solemnity and even a joy. I felt this last Sunday in the churches, and there's an anticipation of the next Triduum days.”

A damaged church in Aleppo
A damaged church in Aleppo

Toward the Resurrection

Looking ahead to Easter Sunday, the day Christians celebrate Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, I ask Fr O’Riordan whether he’s hopeful for resurrection for Syria too.

“The situation in Syria is so cataclysmic, “ he says, “that it's very difficult to see the horizon of Easter Sunday.”

“I guess the Christian imagination is oriented towards Easter,” he continues. “But it takes a special sensitivity to see the hope. It's very, very difficult to have hope in Syria at the moment because the war is not over, the economy deteriorates, people struggle on an hour by hour basis to get through.”

Thus, he concludes, “we hope for the resurrection. We hope for a better future for Syria. But I think it is in the hands of the disciples around the world to respond with aid and with solidarity and with political and diplomatic creativity to resolve the crisis in Syria.”

Palm Sunday in Aleppo

You can make a donation to support the Jesuit Refugee Service’s work in Syria here.

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07 April 2023, 08:00