ASIA/SYRIA - Franciscan Hanna Jallouf new Apostolic Vicar in Aleppo. Safeguarding the hope of the poor even in the lands dominated by jihadists

Monday, 3 July 2023 mission   local churches   persecutions   jihadists  

Pro Terra Sancta

Aleppo (Agenzia Fides) - Father Hanna Jallouf, a Syrian, Friar Minor of the Custody of the Holy Land, is the new Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo for Catholics of the Latin rite. He succeeds his Lebanese confrere Georges Abou Khazen, who last year had already resigned from the pastoral governance of the Apostolic Vicariate due to age limit. Pope Francis appointed Father Hanna as Bishop on Saturday, July 1, with a choice full of suggestions for anyone who is aware of the tribulations also experienced by Christians in Syria in recent years. Father Hanna is one of the priests who during the years of war continued to serve and comfort with the gift of the Sacraments and the Word of God, small Christian communities in the territories of Idlib province dominated during the war by jihadist militias. Areas that to date have never returned under the control of the government of Damascus.

Father Hanna, 71, studied philosophy and theology in Assisi and obtained a Licentiate in history in Beirut and in Youth Pastoral and Catechetics at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. So far, he has been parish priest in Knayeh, his native village, one of three villages in the valley of the Orontes River, where there are two other Christian villages (Yacubieh and Jdayde). At the beginning of the conflict, when that area went under the control of the anti-Assad militias, priests from other Christian communities had fled. Father Hanna and his confrere Luai Bsciarat remained in their parishes, and his parishioners remained in their homes.

Under the anti-Assad groups abuses began against the local population: demands for taxes, seizure of property and empty houses that were occupied by the jihadist militia. Father Hanna managed to maintain channels of contact with the armed groups. They forced him not to ring the bells. To cover the statues of Our Lady and the saints. And he silenced the bells, covered or hid the statues. The school was banned from teaching Christian doctrine. And they, reluctantly, obeyed. They tried to continue living as Christians under whoever commands pro tempore, including jihadist militiamen. First those of the Islamic State, then those of Jabat al Nusra.
The parish and convent remained open. Every five or six months Father Hanna was even allowed to go out from the area controlled by the jihadists. Once he went as far as Lebanon to undergo a minor operation. Even on those occasions, after each quick trip, with risky return journeys, he always returned and resumed his pastoral mission. In the Orontes Valley there were the nuns, and the children to help and console.

In October 2014 (see Fides, 8/10/2014) the Franciscan was also kidnapped from St. Joseph's parish by al Nusra jihadists, along with some parishioners. On that occasion, the kidnapping had taken place after Father Jallouf himself, had appealed to the Islamic court, the body set up in the area under the control of the Islamists to administer justice according to Islamic law - to denounce the expropriations and looting suffered by the parish on behalf of the militiamen. Father Jallouf, and later his parishioners, had been released within a few days.

In April 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic had also arrived in Syria, and while the province of Idlib continued to be the theater of conflict, with direct and indirect interventions also from the conflicting military strategies of Russia and Turkey, Father Hanna Jallouf had issued a request for concrete solidarity, asking everyone to help the inhabitants of the Orontes valley to perceive "that Christ also rose for them and they are not abandoned by the universal Church". In a letter released by the organization "Let's help Syria", Father Hanna had briefly outlined the context in which he and Father Luai Bsciarat continued to carry out their pastoral work: "We work in the tormented north of Syria. (…) We serve the Christian community that has remained here, in the villages of the Orontes; there are about 210 families (almost 600 people) who belong both to the Catholic Church and also to the Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Churches. We are the only religious who have remained out of all the clergy who were in the Province of Idlib before the war". (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 3/7/2023)