LONDON — The Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo said Syria’s second-largest city, which he “loves so much,” has been left in ruins by months of fighting, and Christians there are struggling to survive.
“People have fled their homes,” said Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo.
Speaking at a reception in Parliament Oct. 18, the bishop said that, even with the violence of “bombing and snipers,” Aleppo’s bishops have decided to stay with their people to try to prevent the loss of a Christian presence in the area.
“We don’t want to leave them alone. If I go out of the city for a time, the people will feel alone,” he said.
“We did not go to Lebanon to meet the pope to tell him that we are in a dangerous situation,” he said, referring to Pope Benedict XVI’s Sept. 14-16 visit to Lebanon. “Instead, we wrote the pope a letter to ask for his support.”
Bishop Audo was willing to visit Britain briefly, however, to raise the awareness of the plight of Syrian Christians in the West and to appeal for material assistance to help improve their situation.
“In some areas … they have fled their homes because of the threat of bombs, they have lost their livelihoods; schools, hospitals and other public services do not function. There is chaos,” he said.
“Eighty percent of people have no job and have no option but to stay at home,” the bishop said. “Poverty is getting very serious, especially with rising prices and no salaries. The face of the city has changed. There is no security, everything is dirty, there are difficulties in basic travel, no taxis, no buses.”
He said that although many Syrian people had suffered as a result of the violence that has convulsed the region Christians were confronted by problems that were “uniquely serious.”
“In the city of Homs, home to what was the country’s second-largest Christian community, all but a few of the faithful were forced to leave after a wave of persecution — all the churches desecrated,” Bishop Audo said.
“The desire to emigrate is always on people’s minds, especially Christians,” he said. “The majority of wealthy people have already left Aleppo for Lebanon to seek schools for their children.
“Those who remain in Aleppo are only the poor families. We are fearful that Christianity will decline and will lose (its) influence as it has done over the past decade in neighboring Iraq,” he said.
“If Christians in my country were reduced to a token few, it would be disastrous because, until now, ours has been one of the last remaining strong Christian centers in the whole of the Middle East.
“And so I ask what is the future of Christianity in the Middle East now?” Bishop Audo said.
The civil war in Syria erupted in March 2011 when rebels attempted to overthrow the ruling President Bashar al-Assad.
The United Nations estimates that 300,000 people have fled Syria to neighboring countries, and that an additional 1.5 million are displaced within the country. The United Nations says more than 18,000 people have been killed in the conflict, but activists put the death toll at more than 30,000.
In Geneva, officials from the World Food Program said that, in September, 1.4 million people in Syria required food assistance, and that aid workers cannot reach all those in need because of the war.
A high-level delegation of bishops, including New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, is scheduled to travel to Damascus in late October to show solidarity with victims and encourage peace negotiations.
Bishop Audo spoke alongside Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, at a reception organized by Aid to the Church in Need and sponsored by the All Party Parliamentary Group on International Religious Freedom.
Both men were due to speak in London’s Westminster Cathedral Oct. 20, a day of prayer for the persecuted church.
Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, an estimated 2 million + Iraqi Christians have fled to Syria, and other neighboring countries, and another 2.7 million are “internally displaced,”1 meaning uprooted from their homes, but still within Iraq.