The Franciscan who stayed in war-torn Syria
By Silvonei Protz
If you rely on what you see and read in the media, you might think the war in Syria is over. That’s because few media outlets talk about it anymore. As a Syrian living in Syria, that is deeply disturbing to Franciscan Fr Firas Lufti, who stayed in his country throughout the war. “It’s true the fighting has stopped in some areas”, he says, “but we must take into account the fact that the war lasted for nine years. There has been massive destruction, houses demolished, entire neighbourhoods in ruins, churches that have to be rebuilt… Half the population of 23 million people before the war is gone: between deaths, refugees and displaced people”.
Searching for solutions
As a Franciscan, and as a Christian, Fr Firas has never given up hope. While there are times it seems like there is nothing he can do, his Franciscan heart continues to search for solutions. “How can I help my people?” he asks himself constantly. The international Franciscan community is already doing a lot. With the help of solidarity campaigns, and the generosity of many benefactors, he has been able to distribute food parcels and drinking water. Donations have allowed him to help finance micro projects, or to assist young married couples. “These projects are testimonies that the Lord gives and continues to give”, he says.
In the midst of the tragedy of war, Fr Firas says he continues to feel the presence of God in a very concrete way. He confirms that the Church has never left the side of the suffering people. The pressure of the war forced some priests and religious to leave, he says, but the majority of bishops, priests and religious orders decided to stay. He gives the example of two of his Franciscan companions who live in the north of the country, near the border with Turkey, close to the historic city of Antioch. “They are living there under the control of the jihadists”, he says, “taking care of the tiny group of Christians who have remained”. There are about 200 Christians in the area, who not only carry Christianity in their DNA, but who also suffer to maintain a concrete testimony of the 2,000-year old Christian presence in the area where, for the first time, Christians adopted the name of “followers of Christ”.
Smiles on children’s faces
There are two projects currently underway in Syria that are dedicated to children. One is in the city of Aleppo, where Fr Firas lived during the war: it is called “therapeutic art”. A team of specialists and volunteers do everything they can to help children recover from the psychological trauma brought about by the war. Activities at the center include music, sport, and swimming. “We have provided a beautiful swimming pool because during the war they could not play, leave the house, or study, for fear of being killed”, says Fr Firas. Around one thousand children attend the centre during the summer.
Another project involves the Muslim community. “Only Muslims lived, and still live, in East Aleppo”, explains Fr Firas. “During the war their land was occupied by jihadists. Women were raped, children were murdered… The children witnessed terrible scenes of people having their throats cut by these fanatics”. He describes the forced marriages of jihadists with Syrian women, and the children born of these unions. These children are not officially recognized and there is no registration of their birth at the registry office. They exist physically, but not legally. When the jihadists left Aleppo in 2017, the situation was terrifying, says Fr Firas: “Children of 4 or 5 years were living with their mother or grandmother because their parents were no longer alive. Some were left to their own devices and had never attended school. Not to mention the psychological trauma and accumulation of terror they experienced during the fighting”.
There are two centers, each housing 500 boys and girls ranging from 3 or 4 years of age, up until 16. Another program, that already existed in the college “Terre Sainte” in Aleppo, was extended. Fr Firas stresses how the two centers were born from a relationship with the Muslim world: “The Mufti of Aleppo is a very dear friend of ours”, he explains, “and together with the Apostolic Vicar of the Latin community of Syria, a great friendship grew, both before and during the war”. The first fruit was closer collaboration in order to address the urgent needs of the children traumatized by the war.
The project is run in close collaboration with the Muslim community and has deep significance for Fr Firas. It shows how it is never too late to do good, to spread hope, and to heal wounds. According to Fr Firas, dialogue is not something you engage in around a table, but “working together, hand in hand, heart to heart”. It may take 30 or even 50 years to rebuild Syria, he says, but true reconstruction comes from within: not with bricks, but by rebuilding the person inside us.
Syria as a mission
When anyone asks Fr Firas why he stayed in Syria during the war, he always answers in the same way: “Because I am a Franciscan, a believer. And when the Lord created me there, it was for a purpose: to be His face, His hands, His feet that bring the Good News, the tenderness, and the mercy of God”.
Fr Firas feels he was “called” by God to share the dramatic experience of his country, where people suffer and die every day. “It is just like the grain of wheat that must die in order to produce much fruit”, he concludes. “Exactly as Jesus says in the Gospel”.