A journey to the lands devastated by war. In Lebanon and Syria, to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation of Syrian refugees in refugee camps. To hear the stories of men, women but especially those of countless children who had to leave everything behind them. To understand the reasons of and sustain those who chose not to leave. From 6 to 7 April a delegation of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic Churches consisting of the Archbishop of Moscow Paolo Pezzi, Fr Stefan (Igumnov) from the Moscow Patriarchate and representatives of the Foundation “Aid to the Church in Need” – departed for Beirut and Damascus.
The initiative received the blessing of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill.
“They were informed – explained Monsignor Pezzi – and this trip is a practical outcome of their meeting in Cuba, where, as we know, one of the important issues discussed, along with that regarding the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, was the opportunity to offer their solidarity and support the wish of the Christian population to remain in those lands.”
In Lebanon the delegation visited the refugee camps in the city of Zahle – the largest inhabited centre of the Bekaa Valley, on the border with Syria, where approximately 250 thousand refugees from Syria took refuge.” Life here is not easy – pointed out Msgr. Pezzi -; living conditions are precarious despite the Church’s great commitment. We were deeply impressed by the presence of children, in very high numbers. In these circumstances one understands why the Gospel tells us that children belongs the kingdom of heaven. They have experienced the most tragic situations.
They witnessed horrible things unfortunately inflicted to their own parents or siblings. Nonetheless, their hopes continue to thrive, along with their smiles.”
The delegation visited one of the many soup kitchens set up by the Churches’ social services for the distribution of daily meals to the refugees and the poor. They met with Christian families from the city of Homs and Aleppo. “I was deeply impressed by their joy – the archbishop recalled – and by the lack of hatred and resentment, coupled by a heartfelt yearning to return to their homes, which undoubtedly will need to be reconstructed. Approximately 70 to 90% of the cities of Aleppo and Homs have been destroyed.”
During the journey the delegation identified three major tasks. The first is “to conduct a survey on the actual situation of the Christian communities” so that the account of what has truly happened may be passed down to the next generations. In consists in identifying “the exact reasons that led Christians to stay; stories of love and solidarity offered to all; stories of how they lived the faith, sometimes even to the point of martyrdom: a testimony that it is possible to live with nothing”, the bishop said.
The delegation then decided to “map the places of worship” to sound out how many churches there were in the cities; which ones have been destroyed and which were damaged; which are those in need of major reconstruction works; which ones could be rebuilt. Right now there are no Christians and no one knows when will be able return.” The purpose is to ensure, through the solidarity of Christians in Russia and of the international community as a whole
the preservation of “the Christian testimony in the holy places where the Christian tradition dates back to its very inception.”
The third task – that will need to be put into practice in the short run – is to create a solidarity network involving Christian families in Russia and in Syria. The journey of the Catholic and Orthodox Russian Churches signals a progress in the dialogue between the Churches.
“We are witnessing the development of an ecumenism of charity”, Msgr Pezzi pointed out. “It’s an ecumenism of mutual listening, an ecumenism on the move that does not worry about defining situations but rather of verifying them in practice.”