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Syrian Catholic leader pleads with US Christians not to forget his threatened church

A man reacts at a site hit by what activists say was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's al-Fardous district on April 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Hosam Katan *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SYRIA-BISHOP, originally transmitted on April 29, 2015.
Greek-Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria during a visit at ACN International Headquarter on July 15, 2014. Photo by Reinhard Backes, courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need

Greek-Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, during a visit at ACN International Headquarters on July 15, 2014. Photo by Reinhard Backes, courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need

NEW YORK (RNS) In the weeks leading up to Easter, Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo was starting to sense, finally, that the war that had ravaged Syria since 2011 was finally beginning to ease.

He launched an effort to promote rebuilding and to keep some of the younger generation of Christians in Aleppo, a religiously diverse city of 3 million near the Turkish border that had been the country’s commercial hub.

Then, on Easter weekend, another round of fighting erupted, targeting the Christian quarter of the city and killing and injuring dozens. Three churches and several apartment buildings were destroyed and rockets hit Jeanbart’s own offices, which sit less than 200 yards from the Old City, where the rebels are based.

The archbishop spent the next week looking for someplace to bury the bodies of a family of four since the Catholic cemetery was now a battle zone.

“I was without any words to say to my people,” the prelate said in an interview as he prepared to celebrate an evening prayer service at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Brooklyn, one stop on a 10-day tour of the U.S. that ends on Friday (May 1).

It was a grim moment, a low point even amid the horror of the civil strife that has devastated Syria, and in particular the country’s ancient Christian minority.

Jeanbart heads the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Aleppo, an Eastern Catholic rite that is in full communion with Rome, but one that is in serious peril.

Just a few decades ago, Aleppo was home to about 170,000 Catholics, about a third of the city’s population. Since the war broke out, Jeanbart has seen a third of his flock reduced by death, dislocation and emigration while Aleppo’s Muslim population has soared.

Damage in the Christian quarter of Aleppo. Photo courtesy of the Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo

Damage in the Christian quarter of Aleppo. Photo courtesy of the Melkite Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo

The threat of annihilation is constant, as Aleppo has become the main battleground between the government forces of President Bashar Assad and a motley assortment of rebels who include growing numbers of fighters affiliated with the fundamentalist terrorism of the Islamic State group.

Militants from the Islamic State have killed or kidnapped priests; the tires on Jeanbart’s own car were shot out in an attack as he traveled to Beirut. Two Eastern Orthodox bishops were captured two years ago and there has been no word on their condition. Snipers, shelling, lootings and car bombings are a part of the daily gantlet Christians run if they leave their homes. “A country of blood and fire,” he calls it.

That’s why the Catholic relief agency Aid to the Church in Need brought Jeanbart to the U.S. — to raise awareness about the seriousness of their plight and to raise money to help rebuild the community.

“We are in grave danger; we may disappear soon,” as Jeanbart told an audience in Manhattan on Tuesday (April 28). He began his tour in Boston and was headed to Washington, speaking to church groups but also doing numerous media and television interviews to get the word out.

Yet the archbishop knows he has a host of forces arrayed against him, and not just on the battlefield:

  • First, in his experience, Jeanbart said Americans tend to assume that everyone in an Arab country such as Syria is a Muslim. Melkite Catholics in the U.S. are a proud and vibrant community, numbering some 25,000 families in nearly 50 parishes. But they are spread across the country and are almost invisible when compared with the 65 million Roman Catholics in the U.S.
  • Second, Jeanbart said the media’s focus on the geopolitics of the Middle East conflict and on military strategies obscures Syria’s pluralistic society and the fact that Christians exist there — and are main targets for Islamist terrorists.
  • Third, the geopolitics don’t work in the church’s favor. The Assad regime and the rebels have support from different Muslim countries, which use each side as a proxy, while he said Israel is the focus of U.S. support. Jeanbart stressed his support for Israel’s right to exist, but he said there needs to be a different balance.

“I know the American people have values and like freedom and like justice, so I thought they would listen, would give an ear to the other communities in the region — particularly the Christians, who are forgotten,” said Jeanbart, 72 and yet still energetic after a long day of interviews and little sleep.

A man reacts at a site hit by what activists say was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad, in Aleppo's al-Fardous district on April 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Hosam Katan *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SYRIA-BISHOP, originally transmitted on April 29, 2015.

A man reacts at a site hit by what activists say was a barrel bomb dropped by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad, in Aleppo’s al-Fardous district on April 29, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Hosam Katan
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SYRIA-BISHOP, originally transmitted on April 29, 2015.

But Jeanbart faces another challenge when he speaks to an American audience: For him, as for other Syrian Christians, Assad is not the despot that he is considered in Washington.

Christians in Syria felt protected by Assad, he said, much as Christians in Iraq were under Saddam Hussein. Many on Capitol Hill, however, want to send more arms and funding to the rebels and remove Assad, who has been accused of using chemical weapons as well as being a serial violator of human rights.

“It’s up to them (the Americans) whether to like him or not,” Jeanbart said of Assad. “But I’m afraid they don’t know him enough. He’s not an angel. He will not be canonized tomorrow. But he’s not bad. Compared to the other Arab leaders, he may be one of the best.”

Assad is under growing pressure from the rebels and the Islamic State, and if Assad falls, Jeanbart fears that the ensuing chaos — like that in Libya and Iraq — may sound the death knell for a Christian community that predates even the conversion of the Apostle Paul.

“As a successor to the apostles I feel a responsibility, a duty, to do what I can,” he said. “I don’t want, in my time, that this church might disappear. We are all responsible” — pointing to Christians in the West — “for the continuity of the church in this land that has been blessed and sanctified by the blood of millions of martyrs who since the beginning have been killed because they were Christians.”


About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.


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  • You’ve got the ‘there is no god but God’ part right, after that, it’s a whole lot of bunkum when you involve human characters in your narrative. Also, why involve those poor Christians and Jews in your text? This is exactly why political Islam is having problems with the rest of humanity. Christians have lived in the region long before Islam ever came into existence. What is so difficult to understand about freedom of religion? Why follow Christians everywhere they go and disrupt the peace?

  • Any persecution of any minority group is wrong and, to me, it is sinful. It is wrong no matter what religion, society, or culture. I have been concerned for some time that the political leaders of the U. S. can decry violence against religion, seldom do they single out the violence toward Christians. There is a backlash against Christians in our nation, that is a fact. Just read comments on blogs and note how newscasters love to give a lot of space and video to the Christian fundamentalist. It’s so easy the loud mouths seek all the publicity they can get. Seldom, if ever, do they cover ministries of Christians who are making a difference in the lives of people for the good. Many people who give comments to the RNS accept that this is what Christians are like across the nation and world. Few church based social ministries seek any publicity, but simply do their work.

    Those who will please pray for the Christians in Syria, and put action to your prayers.

  • We pray for you Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart.
    We pray that peace be restored in your land for your people.

    We also pray that wisdom be given to all people to enable the establishment of peace.

  • Peace will only be achieved through the messianic and millennial rule of the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ, who is King of God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 4:17).

    That government will soon put an end to all wicked ones on the planet, as well as all the terrible conditions we now daily face, and rule from the heavens with love, righteousness and peace (Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 21:1-4).

  • James Carr is clearly dishonest. He lied in an earlier, since comments-closed article about his IQ. James, such tests would not give you an exact number over 150, only a range or a gate.

  • Where is the UN on this matter? The slaughter of Christians is not imaginary, it is happening as we speak. Must the world ignore the facts as they did the Jewish Holocaust? Do we have to wait for peace to calculate the numbers murdered? Could we perhaps offer Barb as a hostage for their lives?

  • Many Christians, Catholics especially, supported the Holocaust, and Hitler was one of them.

    It is not just Christians being slaughtered in and around Aleppo, but a lot of the murder is because of one religion or another. As usual, these days and past centuries.The Christians just aren’t quite the murderous lot that they used to be.

  • Fran your False Religion will bring you to burning Hell and No More False Jehovah. End can’t come so soon for you when burning as forever. No more False Jehovah and False Religion else Hell is surround you flaming.

  • Jeanbart is correct. First you had George Bush tell us that Sadaam Husein had to go, so we removed him, and now Iraq continues in chaos, with Christians effectively being killed or purged from the country. Then we had our Islamic president claim that removing the leaders in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen would be a great thing, and so they were removed. Now we have Christians being killed by the tens of thousands, churches being blown up, terror and chaos everywhere, and our president talks like these are just growing pains. So the the Syrian archbishop is correct: leave Assad in place, at least there is a certain degree of order in that country; it isn’t perfect, but people have rights there. I’m trying to figure out what strain of Islam our president is? My guess though, is he’s a closet Shiite.

  • How many times must this canard be debunked? HITLER WAS IN NO WAY, SHAPE, OR FORM, A Christian. Any comments he made about being a Christian were made solely for political expediency early in his rise to power. There are many available articles written by well qualified authors illuminating this fact. Hitler’s ‘faith’ if you can call it that, was based primarily on old Teutonic Mythology. German Archbishop, Von Galen was a complete adversary of Hitler. Niemoller and Bonhoeffer, two prominent German Christian pastors were imprisoned by Hitler; Bonhoeffer was executed. As Mark Twain said, ‘Better to be thought a fool and keep silent, then to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

  • B727, even if you disagree with Fran about doctrine, it is wholly un-Christian to make comments which can be inferred to mean that you would look forward to her suffering eternal torment. Jesus commands us to prayer for our enemies and those who despitefully use us. If this is so for Christ’s clear enemies, how much more so for believers with whom we disagree. If you think Fran’s theology is suspect; pray that her eyes might be opened.

  • Good point. Who we see as repressive dictators are often necessary in the barbaric country they rule. Every country is not America, nor are their citizens capable of democratic thought. Democracy is a very difficult mindset and no country can go from barbarism to democracy overnight. When we take away the one thing keeping a modicum of peace, all Hell breaks loose.

  • Right. If Hitler had been Christian he would more likely have distributed Bibles to the Reich’s soldiers instead of copies of Friedrich “God is Dead” Nietzsche.

    It’s a little rhetorical game that atheists can never win. We have an exemplar with which to distinguish phony Christians from authentic ones. Atheists have no such exemplar, so they are stuck with whatever monster chooses to assume the title — and there have been many.

  • “Why follow Christians everywhere they go and disrupt the peace?”

    Because, according to the Islamic State as well as some Islamic scholars, the persecution of Christians (and Jews) is fundamental to Islam.

  • Atheists conveniently believe that the act of Baptism makes a person act in accordance with their Faith. This belief contradicts their belief that God does not exist, and religious practices are rituals left over from the Stone Age.
    So much for a schizoid philosophy. Hitler was a good Catholic who abhorred his Pope and planned to kidnap him. Hitler was a good Catholic who rounded up priests and nuns after the Encyclical denouncing the Nazis was read aloud in all of the occupied countries Catholic Churches.
    Atheists are a sore on mankind’s butt.

  • No, he’s just a liar, and he was caught at that. He is, and should be, called out for that.

  • No the False Religion so is to be exposed. Gods anger will be worse for her and you in Hell if you do not Repent of False Jehovahs.

  • No, James, most atheists don’t believe that. We just think that your god and others don’t exist. If you disagree, then present recent, testable evidence for your particular god that we can examine. I’m not aware of any such evidence.

    If you cannot do so, then please retract your claims about the existence of your god.

  • Christian god is claimed in the bible to be the killer of more people as a fraction of the global population at the time than any other being has done. If that is the creature that you look up to, you have some serious rethinking of your “hero” god to do.

  • Diogenes, it has not been debunked. Hitler was an avowed Christian.

    Hitler was just as much a Christian as you are.

  • “The anti-Semitism of the new movement (Christian Social movement)
    was based on religious ideas instead of racial knowledge.”

    [Adolf Hitler, “Mein Kampf”, Vol. 1, Chapter 3]

    “I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty
    Creator. By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.”

    [Adolph Hitler, Speech, Reichstag, 1936]

    “I have followed [the Church] in giving our party program the
    character of unalterable finality, like the Creed. The Church has
    never allowed the Creed to be interfered with. It is fifteen hundred
    years since it was formulated, but every suggestion for its
    amendment, every logical criticism, or attack on it, has been
    rejected. The Church has realized that anything and everything can be
    built up on a document of that sort, no matter how contradictory or
    irreconcilable with it. The faithful will swallow it whole, so long
    as logical reasoning is never allowed to be…

  • There is no burning place of fiery torment forever, but there is the common grave of man where the dead are sleeping or resting in peace (Ecclesiastes 9:5,6, 10). A God of love would never even consider such a place for his creation (2 Kings 17:16,17).

    Jehovah is not false but is the only true God and the Most High over all the earth (Psalm 83:18).

  • Fran as before No the False Religion so is to be exposed. Gods anger will be worse for her and you in Hell if you do not Repent of False Jehovahs. You are so to go Low not Most High. You go Most Low to Hell if you do not Repent of False Jehovah religious. Repent!

  • Oh, Ian, so I won’t escort you to the gay prom! Can’t your mom make your cousin accompany you?

  • Iran, my lambkin, as I have stated many times, the New Testament proves God’s existence, and since Christ endorsed Scripture, the Old Testament gives further written proof of God.
    I am waiting for contemporary writings from the 1st Century that refutes the eyewitness accounts on the life and obvious divinity of Jesus. None of your atheist “intellectuals” can provide a shred of evidence that such writings exist. Now logically, if the threat of Christian lies was so rapidly growing, either the Jews or Rome would have devoted at least some proof of the Christian “myth”….. but nothing exists. The Epistles predate the Gospels, and the 1st Gospel is known to have been written in 62 AD, prior to the destruction of the Temple. So WE have tangible evidence……you have nothing.

  • That’s a load of bunk. Both of you are ignorant of what is really going on over there.

    Those dictators never created stability. They let their nation rot from the inside out. Like all dictators do. Because they did such a great job in destroying all forms of moderate and democratic dissent, we are left with extremists carving out pieces of the country once weakness was smelled in the government.

    Assad & Son killed tens of thousands of their own people, for the sake of maintaining power. Because many were not Christian, most of the West did not show concern. What are more dead Arabs to you guys? Hussein and Assad were never going to maintain rule in a peaceful fashion. They both played the middle of the Middle East Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It was just a matter of time before the conflict caught up with them.

    You guys wouldn’t give a rat’s sphincter about what went on there if not for the token Christian casualties.

  • Extremely fickle and illogical reasoning. You imply that Hitler’s ridiculous claim meant anything at all to the Church. Who was he to the Church but a misguided person manipulating Catholic Teachings?
    The Jehovah Witness claiming Jesus is Michael the Archangel does not mean the claim has any basis in reality.
    No one can be Catholic and assert claims that the Church does not

  • The churches loved Fascists (many still do). Especially the Catholic and Lutheran ones. The Catholic Church underwrote Franco’s rise to power and signed the first treaty of the Nazi German government.

    The last forced conversions to a Christian faith in Europe were done by Nazi collaborators working with the approval of the Catholic Church.
    Part of the Nazified Bible handed out in churches added this commandment
    “Honor God and believe in him wholeheartedly,”

    But its not like you guys are interested in honest discussion of history. It was just a canned screed anyway which will be repeated at a later time. Facts are too inconvenient when you are trying to defame others in service of your faith.

  • Oh, good grief… God is a mass murderer. Thanks, Iago, for that elementary school logic.

  • If it makes you feel any better, I don’t believe God is a mass murderer. One has to exist to be a mass murderer. 🙂

  • The Middle East has never had democratic governments. Today’s dictators are most likely improvements on past dictators. That’s all they know. One takes the lesser of two evils and copes.

  • “Kill the infidels…Infidels are those who declare: “God is the Christ, the son of Mary.” (Sura 5:17)

    What could go wrong?

    While doctors, engineers and nurses are trying to save innocent lives in Nepal,
    Religion is determined to slaughter innocents wherever it finds them.

    Religion. The Human Earthquake.

    Religion poisons everything.

  • Larry, if you read recognized historical treatises someone may actually want to discuss it with you. But, you know, atheists stop at the door of facts and logic.

  • Then why aren’t your Maxie Pads over there helping out, instead of posting comments that all Religions reject. Place your flag on Everest and send us a photo.

  • On what basis can you demonstrate that your reading of history, and your sources are superior to, or more accurate than those with whom you disagree? For the record, merely posting a link won’t do it. Further, on what authority or philosophical framework can you insist that your opponents must prove a positive, without you conversely having to prove a negative; i.e. the existence of God. It is absurd, it does not follow, and as well is intellectually lazy and dishonest. There’s 3 Aces for you. I can honestly declare that every atheist I ever met has been an utter ego-maniac. When a Christian declares himself a sinner, an atheist generally declares himself a model citizen without flaw. I am a sinner

  • You are an ignoramus. What you have learned about Hitler has obviously come from a very thin reading of history.

  • I utterly reject your charge. Every human life is sacred, No such thing as a ‘token’ loss of life. I mourn equally for slaughtered Muslims, Christians, Jews, or any religious minority. As for democracy and moderation, I tremble at the thought of you ever holding the reigns of power; a truly terrifying thought.

  • Its called being honest with the evidence. Something apologists avoid like the plague. There are only so many “No True Scotsman” arguments which can be put out there before you can no longer be taken seriously.

    Franco’s fascist regime was practically bought and paid for by the Catholic Church. Christian religious appeals were essential for recruiting collaborators. Playing off the longstanding anti-semitism and reactionary politics common to Catholic and Lutheran churches. Croatian Ustasche relied heavily on Catholic religious appeals as they slaughtered Jews and Orthodox Christians en masse.

    The only one looking at history narrowly are the ones looking for excuses for their own faith. Some Christians opposed him, but they were hardly legion nor did most have the approval of their churches.

    The only ignoramuses are the Christian apologists here.

  • Israel was always democratic.

    Dictatorships do not bring stability, they just hide the cracks in the society well. All dictatorships sow the seeds of their own destruction. Even effective dictators seldom leave effective successors. Gaddafy, Assad and Hussein didn’t leave stable regimes. They were constantly teetering on the edge of civil war even before the US got directly involved. Its just the average American and European didn’t bother to pay attention. Pakistan’s descent from democracy to dictatorship has completely undermined stability. Its at the point where whole sections of the nation are practically rogue states in of themselves.

    What we are seeing in Syria was a long time coming. The Middle East Cold War between Iran and Saudi Arabia sped up events which were inevitable. Syria being in the middle and playing both sides got plastered from both ends from it.

  • I acknowledge the causes here go back much further than the US invasion of Iraq. I recognize the effect of the longstanding cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in this whole mess.

    I also don’t fall for the nonsense contention, unsupported by history, that dictatorships bring stability. Syria was never stable, neither was Iraq or any other dictatorship in the region. The nature of autocracy undermines stability.

    Also I am not stupid enough to believe Islamicism and the various terrorist/military forces it employs exists just because people are Muslim. They were Muslim for centuries. Islamicist terrorism is fairly recent (last 30+ years). Aside from the Egyptian MB, terrorists back in the day were secular nationalists or leftists (Fatah, FLN and ilk). ISIS exists so the Saudis and Gulf States can have proxy forces to take over the Iranian allied Syria.

    Anyone who thinks leaving Assad in place was ever an option is delusional.

  • So ask yourself, when this site had articles about ISIS was running rampant against Kurds and Yahdzis did you bother to chime in to show sympathy for them?

    I did. In fact I praised the Kurdish forces for protecting refugees of different cultures and religions.

  • People who believe in the raising of the dead and sky deities answering their heartfelt entreaties are not ones to speak of facts and logic. 🙂

    There is no such thing as a stable dictatorship. There are ones which last a while, but peace and stability is never in the cards for them. Least of all in the modern world. Dictatorships have a much harder time controlling the flow of information nowadays.

    Much of the current problem with Islamicist terror falls squarely on the shoulders of dictatorships which encouraged them. Dictators used Islamicism to carry out 2 functions: 1) drive potentially democratizing forces out in fear ; 2) redirect potential revolution outwards towards foreign conflicts.

    Assad was not a force against Islamicism. He supported it Assad provided direct aid to Hezbollah. The only difference a supporter of being Iran based Islamicists as opposed to Saudi based ones like ISIS.

  • So “Israel was always democratic”…where on earth did you get that pile of rubbish? Where was democratic Israel when Palestinians had their whole homeland cut in half by Zionists from Europe and America? Where was democracy for Palestinians then and where is it now when Israeli Palestinians can’t buy their own land, are relegated to second-class citizenship in their own land, cannot make major decisions in their own land, as Europeans have taken over to create a Yiddish colony, Isis-RA-EL, our gods are one and we Europeans are Semites.., yeah, right..

  • Prove that the Resurrection of Jesus did not occur. We have four written accounts on tat one event, eyewitness accounts.
    And, um, where are the timely accounts that disprove this? Where was the body? How did so many report seeing Him? How is it that so many believed such an incredulous story, a story that is still believed 2,000 years later by even the most recognized “intellectuals”?
    Again, prove to me your positive statement since I know you don’t have to prove a negative. Simply because man doesn’t come back to life on his own every day, does not mean Jesus did not do this. And we have four separate historical accounts that it occurred. Proof.

  • Has anyone else returned from the dead since?
    Has anyone in modern history returned from the dead?
    Does anyone outside of religious fanatics think returning from the dead is physically possible?

    Unless you can show any of these, I don’t have to disprove resurrection. Its not possible. I can dismiss it out of hand. Much like if I claim to be a mystical imp from the 6th Dimension, you don’t have to disprove that either,

    You have 4 written accounts made generations after the fact and codified into religious scripture. Credibility and objectivity not being the primary concern of those keeping the story going.

    “a story that is still believed 2,000 years later by even the most recognized “intellectuals””

    Ask Homer. His stories are still being read and analyzed today and are much older than the Bible. Plus people who take the Bible literally as factual are ridiculed by most of the world as ignorant, stubborn or dishonest. Even by fellow Christians.

  • Eyewitness accounts that didn’t appear until some 40 years after the fact, and which disagree with each other is a great many particulars. Eyewitness accounts which begin with a miraculous birth, heralded by choirs of angels, except for the accounts that failed to mention it, or “account” for the failure of anyone to remember that miraculous birth.