Syria: We Await With Courage the Dawn of a New Day

Fra Firas Lufti, Syrian Friar Belonging to the Custody of the Holy Land, Talks to ACN about the Months Spent as Parish Priest at Knayeh, in the Oronte Valley

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By Marta Petrosillo

"It was the most difficult day of my life and I faced it with courage, entrusting myself completely to God so that He would suggest to me the words to address to my faithful," said Father Firas Lufti, a Syrian friar belonging to the Custody of the Holy Land, referring to the day he celebrated the funeral rites of Father Francois Murad, a religious killed in Syria last June.

Fra Firas described to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) the months he spent as a parish priest at Knayeh, in the Oronte valley, almost at the border with Turkey. And he went over the day of June 23, when he had to go to the neighboring village of Ghassanieh to recover the lifeless body of Father Francois. “Some faithful knocked on my door at six o’clock in the morning to tell me that the convent of Ghassanieh was bombed and that Francois was dead. My thought went immediately to the three Sisters and the other Religious, Father Philippe, who lived in the convent of Saint Anthony of Padua.”

Arriving at the place, Fra Firas understood that it was not at all a bombing, as the exterior of the building had not suffered damages. Instead, the interior of the church was devastated: the benches and statues destroyed, the Tabernacle opened. At the entrance of the convent lay the corpse of Father Francois, on his back in his blood.

“What killed him was not a missile of the government as was said, but shots from a firearm.” Next to the corpse were three armed men. From their accent it was easy to deduce that they were not Syrian. "They also made reference to me of a sniper present in the building who continued to rail against poor Father Francois. Fortunately, he didn’t see me, otherwise he would have killed me also."

In another room of the convent, in the upper floor, were the three Sisters of the Rosary “terrorized and destroyed.” Fortunately that day Father Philippe, the parish priest, was at Latakia and so his life was spared. The news of the death of the Religious spread terror among the small local Christian community.”

"Although I myself was in need of courage," recalled Fra Firas, "I tried to infuse courage and comfort the faithful. During the funeral it wasn’t easy to find the right words to say, words that wouldn’t be interpreted as a message in favor of the government or the rebels. I’m with no one, but with the Lord and my brothers, who are Syrian citizens and, as such, have the right to inhabit these lands and to live with dignity in their own country.”

The Oronte valley is an area controlled at present by the rebels after the withdrawal of the loyalist army. Of the three French parishes located in the region, Ghassanieh is experiencing the most dramatic situation: here there are manymilitiamen, in the main foreigners, from Afghanistan and. At Jacoubieh, instead, there are some 40 rebel groups, made up in the main of Syrians and often fighting among themselves. The area of Knayeh, instead, is controlled in the main by the free Syrian army, although here also “fanatical elements” are not lacking “which want to impose the Sharia.”

“When I arrived a Knayeh last April I found a terrible situation,” said the friar. “Almost every night I was obliged to go out to see if someone was wounded or killed by the missiles that fell repeatedly on the village.” There are about 300 Christians who have chosen to stay in this small area even after the withdrawal of the official Syrian army. “They are persons who did not want to take sides, yet the government considers them accomplices of the terrorists and the rebels believe that, in as much as Christians, they are linked to the regime. Moreover, when groups of the Opposition are in need of money they actually kidnap Christians.”

The inhabitants of the village no longer have something to live on: many have lost their work and the peasants have been robbed of their harvest. Fortunately the poor families can count on the solidarity of the Franciscan monastery of Saint Joseph. Every month the friars give them flour, rice and sugar and offer hospitality to anyone in need, of any faith. ”Our monastery has even housedand Sunnis together, making their reconciliation possible.” Many also arrive at Knayeh because of the lovable care of Sister Patricia, Italian Religious of the Immaculate Sacred Heart of Mary. “Despite the lack of medicines and the terrible psychological conditions in which she lives, Sister Patricia has decided to stay in Syria to cure the illnesses and dry the tears of anyone in need of her help. Many Muslims travel several kilometers to be taken care of by her, because they are convinced that her hand is blessed.”

Thinking of the future of his country, Fra Firas believes that peace can be attained through the concrete commitment of all the parties involved: not only the regime and the Opposition, but all the international subjects that support and finance one or the other faction. An opportunity might be represented by the possible Geneva conference, which in fact in these hours has been postponed further. “A global war is being fought in Syria at the expense of innocent citizens. Every day it causes greater pain, bitterness, deaths and destruction, but we mustn’t lose confidence in the future. This is what I learned during the months spent at Knayeh: we must continue to hope and to await with courage the dawn of a new day.”