Christians from the front-line

John Newton of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) describes the impact of witnessing the work of the Melkite Catholic Church in Zahle, Lebanon, helping Christian families fleeing Islamist extremists in Iraq and Syria.

Why had Christians been arriving in large numbers?

Zahle is a Christian-majority city in the Beqaa valley, Lebanon. It’s the hub of where the Melkite Church is organising help for the refugees from the war in Syria.

The Melkite Church is an Eastern-rite Catholic Church in full communion with the pope. Working with ACN, we had a number of difficult days doing interviews: it started off with us being dropped off to a studio flat where a family was staying with four or five children.

The rent and their food was paid for by the Melkite Church. The father told me that ‘even the clothes on my back had been provided by Archbishop Darwish’.

Islamist extremists had gone into the Christian school, where their children were studying, with guns and said, ‘if you are still here tomorrow we will come back and kill you.’ The children went home, told their father, and they took no chances.

They left with a couple of suitcases that night and found their way to Zahle with nothing. The Melkite Church clothed them, fed them, and provided for them.

What was most remarkable about these people?

Hope has got to be the keynote because one of the things that always strikes you speaking to them; they’ve probably got more hope and a darned-sight more faith than I’ve got.

If I was in that room, I’d be climbing the walls, I would be crying, I’d be ranting like anything. I’d probably be very angry, upset at the hand I’d been dealt and I’d be raging against it.

In these people, there was a sense of hope getting them through the whole thing.

Has it impacted your Faith?

I think it has to. They’ve been kicked out of their homes by extremists. They’ve lost everything.

In the Beqaa Valley, there was a gentleman and his family who were living in a very small flat. These were not good circumstances.

He once had a chain of restaurants, he owned orchards. He had cars, he was able to give his family the best of everything. And he was very proud as a man that he’d been able to support his family. And he’d been able to give them the best. He was now in the Beqaa Valley as a refugee.

He couldn’t work. He had a back condition and most of the jobs that you could do in the Beqaa Valley were manual jobs – he was not able to get even the little to support his family that he wanted. He was feeling the weight of not being able to provide. You could tell it was eating him up.

That night, I accidentally attended a service at the Melkite Cathedral. It was absolutely beautiful: it was a living Gospel painted from wall to ceiling, a testament in pictures to the Faith. The Melkite chant is sublime.

I remember being struck by one cantor, the tone and the fervour of the beautiful voice. I couldn’t help but turn and look at who was singing, and it was this gentleman from Syria who had lost everything, who was praising God in sublime tones.

That really had an impact. Even with everything weighing him down, he was letting it all rise to God in the prayers of the Melkite liturgy.

You can sign ACN’s Red Wednesday petition to help persecuted Christians in Nigeria here.

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