In June, 2015, I wrote of my concern that the Syrian city of Aleppo – once Syria’s largest – would be encircled by the Islamic State. And unlike Mosul, where Christians had a clear avenue of escape after that city was captured by the Islamic State, were Aleppo to be encircled the Christians there would likely be systematically exterminated.
Aleppo is a city with an ancient and gloriously diverse Christian population. While the Christian population of 250,000 before the civil war has dwindled to an estimated 100,000, Aleppo remains home to nine bishops: the Melkite Archbishop (Jean-Clément Jeanbart), the Archbishop of the Armenian Catholic Archeparchy (Boutros Marayati), the Syrian Catholic Archeparchy (Denys Antoine Chahda), the Maronite Archeparchy (vacant), the Chaldean Eparchy (Antoine Audo), and the Roman Rite Apostolic Vicariate (Georges Abou Khazen). It is also the seat of two Orthodox bishops who were kidnapped in April 2013 and not yet heard from, Gregorios Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church and Paul Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church. And Aleppo is a See of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Now – and suddenly – the international community has begun to move aggressively to resolve the Syrian civil war. Peace talks will begin January 25, 2016. The urgency for a settlement of the conflict comes from: 1) the flood of Syrian refugees into Europe; 2) the Paris attacks of November 13, which are blamed indirectly on the Syrian civil war; and, 3) the Russian intervention in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.
Item number one at the peace talks will be the negotiation of a ceasefire, to include Aleppo. This, and recent advances by anti-Islamic State forces, as reported by the respected Institute for the Study of War (“The Military Situation in Aleppo, December 30, 2015”), mean that the encirclement of Aleppo and the eradication of the Christian presence there is now unlikely.
So, for the moment at least, our prayers for the safety of the very courageous Archbishop Jeanbart, and of his episcopal colleagues, and of all of their people, have been answered, Praise God! That Our Lord seems to have used Russian president Vladimir Putin as his instrument is the inscrutable part.
SPC looks forward to the time, perhaps soon, when circumstances will allow the rebuilding of the Christian Church in Syria. We will be there to help. In the meantime, we are helping Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Aphrem build his orphanage in Damascus to shelter children orphaned because of the civil war.