“Syria has always been a mosaic of cultures and we will not allow war to destroy that," affirmed the Franciscans of the Custody in Damascus who help the poorest people any way that they can.
In the Franciscan church near Bab Touma (The Door of Thomas) in Damascus, the dome still bears the signs of recent bombings. Br. Bahjat Karakach, the superior of the convent, miraculously escaped the explosion that damaged the sanctuary. The parish center where Br. Antoine Louxa lives along with him is the first stop on our trip to Syria.
From the windows, one can see the destruction of the war waged on the Syrian capital, and at night, from time to time, bombings can be heard in the distance, enough to avoid falling into a deep sleep. The situation, however, has improved considerably compared with previous months. In the evening, much of the old city is lit up and those who wish to go out, are able to do so, walk, be with friends and have a drink with friends. In the ancient streets of the first capital of the Caliphate, you can still see the wonders of the past. Among them are places that are precious to Christians from all over the world.
The memorial of St. Paul is another important step on the journey toward discovering the activities of the Custody of the Holy Land in Syria. On an ancient Roman road, the place where tradition tells us that Saint Paul fell from his horse (the inscription reads locus Traditionalis conversionis S. Pauli Apostoli), is one of the areas guarded by the Franciscan friars. Before the war, Syria was a destination for thousands of pilgrims. Today, there is no longer any trace of the million tourists on average who used to visit the country. The friars have been there for centuries in the name of and on behalf of the Catholic Church in order to guard the holy places throughout Syria (like, for example, a few kilometers away, the sanctuary of the house of St. Ananias).
Besides this activity, Br. Bhajat explained how the friars spend a deal of their time helping those who have been irremediably affected by the war. Their work in Damascus has been supported by the ATS Pro Terra Sancta, the NGO of the Custody. “This winter we distributed 800 jackets for children who had nothing with which to cover themselves.” The poverty is overwhelming in Damascus. And although people have begun to breathe, the hardships faced by many remain. [But] the Franciscans are not backing down. “We support a kindergarten that welcomes the children of poor families and we also initiate projects for those who have the most psychological difficulties.” Sister Lole, who runs a kindergarten next to the sanctuary of the conversion of St Paul, recounted episodes that she experienced with children who were born during the war:
“Some of them ask for a double serving at the time of their morning snack, but they do not eat anything because they want to bring it home to their parents, who do not have enough to eat. Their drawings mostly represent missiles and tanks... at four or five years old, shouldn’t their drawings be of something else?” Those who suffer the most are the Muslims. “They live in a state of perpetual conflict here in Syria”, continued Br. Bahjat, “we cannot begin to understand it, overcoming it is almost impossible, and that is the reason it is so difficult to get away from all of this evil.” But for Br. Raimondo Girgis, the superior of the Saint Paul Memorial, when someone comes to ask for help, he makes no distinction. “We help anyone who asks for it. Syria has always been a mosaic of cultures and we will not allow war to destroy that.”
The model of coexistence proposed by the friars is the only way to start over today in a country torn apart by hatred and violence. As Cardinal Mario Zenari, the Apostolic Nuncio in Syria, also stated, “Openness to others is our business card, [and] it is the only way we can make a difference. We must continue in this direction; it is our door of salvation. We are the salt of the earth here in this country.”
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