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A Letter From Syria

by Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas

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The Rev. Nidal Abdel Massih Thomas is a priest of the Chaldean Church. For the past 16 years he has been patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. Since the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups fighting in Syria’s civil war, Christians there have been hunted down because of their faith. During a brief visit to Beirut, Father Thomas shared his thoughts on his ministry and the challenges facing his community.

The situation in Syria has been deeply troubling. The main challenge I have faced during the last few years has been to bring hope to my community, especially after ISIS attacked the Hassake governorate and the Assyro-Chaldean villages along the Khabur River. Churches and houses were burned or destroyed and more than 150 people were kidnapped. We helped the displaced families, providing shelter, food and medical assistance.

All this has been happening to a church and a people with a long and rich history in this region. Christians are the salt of Syria — and its light.

I am a Catholic priest of the Chaldean Church, which is one of the 23 Catholic Eastern churches in full communion with the bishop of Rome. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Chaldean Church is led by Patriarch Louis Raphael I in Baghdad. Our Christian faith has given so much life in the Middle East — we belong here — but our communities are being destroyed in Iraq, Syria and the other countries impacted by the fall out of the “Arab Spring.”

Christians are leaving; we cannot prevent families from emigrating. They have the freedom to choose between staying and leaving, as they want only a decent life. But how can you be a good shepherd for a parish whose members were forced from their homes, their land, and their livelihoods?

I have vowed to stay with my parish and those displaced from other areas. I have struggled. However, with the support of the patriarch and my bishop, Antoine Audo, S.J., of Aleppo, who has helped provide material, medical and humanitarian support, we are helping to provide, as much as possible, the basic needs for the displaced Christian families remaining in our part of Syria.

Beyond those necessities of food, health care and shelter, our presence as priests and religious helps give hope to the people of God, where it is lacking. As shepherds — men and women who have left everything and followed Christ — our faith and trust in Christ binds us to the people. We have reopened education centers and provided recreational and pastoral activities for children in the summer.

We are still here.

Jesus Christ remains our inspiration. We are strengthened by his grace. Despite the circumstances, we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, honor the Virgin Mary and pray to Christ, asking for peace from the King of Peace. As a priest, I have given my life to serve the Lord and his people. Some have become martyrs in order to free their homeland. Yet, we continue to live in hope. As Jesus Christ said: “Take courage, I have overcome the world.”

We live in hope that the West will learn that Syria doesn’t need weapons and alms. Syrians are just in need of honest intentions from all key countries, so we can find a way to peace.

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