White flags are waved not to announce surrender, as is expected in times of war, but to say “we shall not surrender. We will continue fighting with the only weapons available: prayer and forgiveness.” The event was held to the presence of a large number of faithful gathered on December 4 in Saint Francis’ parish church in Aleppo, a martyred city, symbol of the war in Syria, disputed for years by government forces that are faithful to president Assad, by the armed rebels of the opposition and by the militia of the Islamic State. While the forces loyal to president Assad, supported by Russia and Iran, launch bombers on the –partly victorious – attempt to reconquer the eastern areas of the city and the rebels fire rockets on the western side, in the parish church, one of the few remaining despite the armed clashes, over one hundred children recited the simple prayer of St. Francis “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace”, waving white flags bearing the words: “Peace for Aleppo.”
The unarmed counteroffensive of Aleppo’s children starts anew from here, from this small parish church that is not very distant from the firing line that delimits the area controlled by the regime from the rebel-held area. Franciscan Fr Ibrahim Alsabagh, 45, born in Syria, witnessed the latest efforts. “The initiative ‘Children in prayer for peace’ was launched by the Latin Community in Aleppo. It was the inspiration of the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr Francesco Patton. It then became an invitation of the Custodian of the Holy Land and of the Friars Minor Order to the Church worldwide and to all men and women of good will to hold moments for prayer for peace, to step up efforts to put an end to the war and the suffering of civilians on the first Sunday of each month”, said the parish priest.
“From Aleppo we reiterate our appeal to the whole world to remain firmly anchored to the hope of peace.”
The Mass celebrated on December 4, the second of the Advent, gave force and consistence to the appeal. Symbols of peace – a globe surmounted by a dove, a banner bearing the word “Aleppo” lit by candles and, in particular, the remains of a rocket transformed in a vase with flowers to adorn the altar on whose side was placed a poster depicting a blood-stained hand and the words “Stop the war.”
But it’s hard to cherish this hope when the surrounding circumstances prevent it. It is perhaps the most difficult challenge for the young fighters of Aleppo, who “find it hard to smile”, the priest said.
Their frightened eyes express suffering. They have been living under stress for years. Some of them were born under the bombs. They are under unbearable psychological pressure. They suffer from malnutrition, hunger, and cold. The humanitarian emergency continue to afflict the whole city.
They have no electricity or running water. The Islamic State that occupies the area north of Aleppo closed the dam gates, cutting water supplies in the city and the surrounding areas. Hospitals and outpatient clinics denounced shortages of medicines and old and broken medical instruments. Replacement parts are impossible to find, and a large number of the medical and surgical staff are out of the country. All this has a negative impact on the lives of the civilian population.
Our young heroes and their families refuse to surrender to this situation in the awareness that prayer is their only weapon.
They decided to remain in Aleppo in spite of everything. Their heroic choice is a result of extraordinary faith.” Especially against the backdrop of the reports from the battlefield describing the “government army advancing forcefully and decisively, forcing the rebels to recoil in defence and retreat. We wake up – said the priest – with the noise of the explosions, we hear the bombings and resignedly await the launch of rockets in response. We never know where they will fall nor which sites or areas of this part of the city have been targeted. Past Sunday, at noon, a rocket fell on the Holy Land College, a branch of our parish church. Fortunately it didn’t explode, thus it failed to cause serious damages. But it could have been a massacre. The civilian population of Aleppo is always the first to suffer, with no distinction.
Our prayers go to all the local inhabitants, our forgiveness goes to those who want to hurt us, and to those who strike against us.”
Forgiveness is a term that seems to be out of place in the violent vocabulary of war. Nonetheless, said Fr Alsabagh, “these children strive to be ambassadors of forgiveness, as they learn from the example of Jesus who forgave those who killed him. Every time we meet we pray also for those who strike against us and who kill.” But forgiveness alone is not enough. We also need justice and dialogue. “Russians and Americans must engage in dialogue to put an end to hostilities – said the Franciscan friar – but when all chances of dialogue fail, prayer is the only effective weapon. With our children we invoked the Holy Spirit over the leaders of world nations. Peace doesn’t only concern Syria, it concerns the whole world. We firmly believe – concluded Fr Ibrahim – that the Lord will listen to the cries of his ‘youngest ones’ and that the prayers of world children will become an opportunity for reflection and conversion also for adults.” Notable absentees: on December 5 the UN Security Council adopted a document demanding “a seven-day ceasefire in Aleppo.” Russia and China said NO.