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Dear friends, dear brothers and sisters, peace be upon you all, the Lord's peace.
Our traditional “Letter to the friends” that you were used to receive has been missing for three years, for different reasons every year, but various articles and calls have taken its place, according to the circumstances. However, this year we felt it was appropriate and even necessary to say a word of hope in this dark night, to light up a candle instead of cursing darkness. In the difficult conditions that our beloved Syria is going through, the cradle of the alphabet and of cultural, religious, ethnic diversity, we would like to ring a bell of hope, despite the bloodshed on homeland's soil, its children's blood and its mothers' tears. We want to shout in the face of death and revive life. Thus, each one of us will write a small text, a sentence, a meditation, hoping that our words will find a way to your hearts. We want to invite you to pray with us, everyone as he can and according to his beliefs and traditions, so that God may soon grant us deliverance, to Syria and all Syrians. So you will find, after these monastic impressions written by some of us as an expression of our common hope for the country's future, an account of our various news.
***“God's grace has been revealed, the spring of salvation of the whole human race” (Titus, 2:11). This year, we meditate on the incarnation of Jesus, while our hearts are suffering from the wounds of our people. We understand better what God's son suffered from the very first moment of his appearing on earth. I found this verse from a Christmas chant that we sing during the night, in our Syriac liturgy: like the vessel carrying precious goods, the Virgin Mary carried the lion cub, the one recounted by Jacob, and when the two were walking on the road towards Bethlehem, the Virgin told Joseph : the moment has come for the lamb to be born ; and Joseph the upright sighed and prayed, saying : oh God who created heavens as well as earth's depths, the oceans and what lives in it, you feel pity for your servant on the day of your birth, as there is no bed for her, no couch, not even a house for her to withdraw. Blessed be Thou who left the nave of heaven, and chose for Himself a manger in a cave, hallelujah, may He revive us through His humility.
On the one hand, Christmas this year is different, in all the meanings of the word. It is a sad, desolated Christmas, because our dear country is suffering and its wounds are bleeding. Children's smiles are missing, as well as adults' laughter. This is the kind of Christmas we were not used to. But on the other hand, Christmas is always Christmas. We live it in the efficiency of this hidden love that the babe in the cave gives us. He plants it in our hearts, making them tender and sensitive, when we think of offering our help to our afflicted neighbours, our consolation to the children of the neighborhood, our sympathy and commiseration to our friends, forgetting ourselves to open up to the needs of the others around us, thus preserving the essence and the true meaning of Christmas, overcoming our limits and hoping that God may grant us, in the period of His son's birth, times of peace as well as this hope that come only from Him, from His love for us.
Forgive us, Mary, for not congratulating you upon your son's birth, for we are busy burying our own children, who are the smile of Christmas.
***It is not easy to write on love and hope while our country is sinking into sadness and tears, in the disaster's horrors. It is not easy, as the Psalm 137 says, to sing God's songs in exile. However, when we are weak, our hope gets strong. Our hope is that we will all stand and rise up from under the rubble of destruction, that peace will embrace our hearts and our country, that we will reconcile and forgive each other, so that truth and justice may come and dwell among us. This hope seems impossible, it seems to go against the trend of the events... how could it become reality? Two thousand years ago, the resurrection of Christ did not occur to anybody's mind, not only because of its irrationality, but also because of its absolute novelty, strange to our human reason and to the possibilities known to the world. If the impossible, the irrational, that which does not occur to mind, actually happened, how could the possible, though difficult, not happen? How could the very desire of millions of people not be realized, even if it seems out of reach? Should it not gloriously happen and grant joy to our life, to our existence? Let us believe that it is possible, let us demand it, for it is on the way, let us work to achieve it, for it is coming. Let us supplicate God with broken, honest hearts, to strengthen men of good will, so that they may build this impossible peace. For God is omnipotent!
It is true that we are speaking about a difficult hope, but I wish to share with you, dear friends, what helps me to cling to hope in exile, far from my dear homeland. In addition to the deep feeling of support and solidarity of many people, I could experience the capacity of some persons to undergo real forgiveness, a forgiveness coming from the heart. What does forgiveness mean in the period we are living? Forgiveness is but God's mercy, and likewise, we are ourselves called to this kind of mercy towards our drawbacks and those of others. This is how we can reach the enthusiasm pushing us forwards, in spite of the wounds that others cause to us or that we cause to others. This is how we can answer “yes” to God's offering himself to us, and host him - or rather, he is the one hosting us, lifting us up, enabling us, in this time and in all times, to incarnate His love for all creatures. This is not a dream, but a reality experienced by some, so let us pray during this Christmas that the desire to forgive may grow in many hearts in our country.
***This year, we celebrate a real Christmas, because we are really waiting for Jesus! Jesus alone comes along with peace. But how to celebrate without Father Christmas? Let each of us be Father Christmas for the homeless, the poor, who are so many in these days!
***How can I share with you my hope, dear friends? How, when at the same time the Syrian civil war brings back to my memory, to my whole being, the civil war that I experienced in Lebanon during thirteen years? I put my hope in the One who will come... My hope is a mustard seed that has fallen onto the ground, but is not yet dead, in order to become a tree in whose branches the birds of the sky nest. My hope is patience, vision, commitment to our vocation in this troubled period, through studies, prayer and solidarity with all those who suffer, and with you, dear friends.
***My very first desire on the occasion of this letter is to express my gratitude to all of you.
Especially in the last month of my staying in Syria, when the pain about the suffering around us became more and more difficult to bear, I deeply felt the support of your presence through your prayers, your thoughts, through your attitude towards us, our vocation and towards the people of Syria that you carry in your hearts.
To feel and know that there are hundreds and hundreds of people all over the world, every one of you, who give this kind of impact into the consciousness of humanity... This is one of the main sources of hope for me. Hope that love and openness towards the other will overcome violence and fear. And it already does, in many small occasions.
After Father Paolo's departure from Syria, because of his well-known political positions that made his staying at the monastery virtually impossible, the monastic community entered into a new and important phase, full of difficulties and challenges on the one hand, and of solidarity on the other hand. This was a sign of confidence and maturation for all of us. We were carrying on our life and our projects in relative peace, until August 5th 2012, when we were dealt a serious blow, as a group of thieves stole our 105-strong goat herd, plus a tractor, many equipments and the hay stock stored on the premises. It was not the first time, though: the big hall in the valley was robbed before, with important losses. Therefore, in this period we live in the constant fear that these attacks against the monastery and its goods will continue. Actually, other intrusions did follow, in the Hayek building, in the Mansake hermitage, and in the shepherds' house. In the last one, electrical cables and equipments were stolen from the engine's room in the valley, amounting to approximately 350 000 Syrian pounds (around 4000 Euros).
These events were a turning point in our monastic life and our projects, forcing us to stop most of the works and as a consequence to send home the “shabab”, our workers, who had been working with us for many years and depend on this job for their subsistence... Moreover, finding a job nowadays in Syria has obviously become difficult.
During the summer, most of the community members were present at the monastery, except brother Jens who continues his path with the foundation of a monastic community at Deir Maryam el Adhra, in Sulaymanyah, Iraqi Kurdistan. The scarcity of visitors was an opportunity to deepen our spiritual life, in its personal and community dimensions. We could spend more time together, as a community. We tried to focus more on the contemplative aspect of our life. But of course, we shall rejoice beyond comparison when the monastery welcomes again the Merciful's guests, visitors and pilgrims from all over the world.
After discernment through prayers, thinking and consulting, the community decided to send some of its members to Cori in Italy, to continue their studies, taking advantage from this situation for their spiritual and theological formation, at the Church and the community's service. Father Jihad, sister Deema and novice Carol therefore went to Italy.
Before this, the community accepted into the novitiate Nabil Hawil from the Assyrian Church in Hassake, after one year as a postulant. He entered thenovitiate on August 27, 2012, the eve of Mar Musa al Habashi, a feast full of consolation and grievance at the same time. Consolation through the presence of Nabil's relatives, community friends and families from Nebek parish that made us feel the Lord's touch, and comforted us in the necessity to continue assuming a spiritual presence in this place. And grievance because of the absence of Father Paolo, our founder and spiritual guide.
Less than a month later, on September 9th, 2012, the community welcomed brother Sebastien in the novitiate. He is French and spent also one year as postulant, after his baptism in the monastery's church on the feast of Mar Elias (prophet Elijah), July 19th, 2011. This is also for us a sign of hope for the future. Brother Sebastien joined Jens to help him in his service in Sulaymaniyah.
Jens is now called Abuna Yohanna, as he was ordained a priest by His Excellency Louis Sako, the Chaldean bishop of Kirkuk, on November 23d, 2012. He will serve the community in our new monastery of the Virgin Mary (Maryam el Adhra) in Sulaymaniyah. Abuna Yohanna finished his theological studies in the Gregorian pontifical university in 2009. God granted his Church with a new priest, therefore, the fourth in our community: to Him our thanks and praise. As for the novice Friederike, she is currently spending a three-month period in Germany to visit and assist her mother.
The community members staying at Deir Mar Musa are sister Huda (who has been chosen as responsible of the monastery and the community), brother (and deacon) Butros, brother Yussef and novice George (who commutes between the monastery and his home in Damascus where he assists his sick or old relatives). Father Jack continues to serve the monastery of Mar Elian and Qaryatein's parish. And the presence with us of Yussef Bali, who celebrated his 50th birthday in October, remains a particular blessing.
We do not forget the friends who commit themselves and stay in solidarity with us, through regular visits and numerous services, for instance representing us in Damascus or in other places, therefore sparing us the burden of travels in this troubled and dangerous period.
We thank God every day for the grace of perseverance in our vocation, operating through the prayers of persons linked to us spiritually. In this warm holiday, we cannot but send a card perfumed with love and carrying our wishes to all those who took part or take part in our projects: this is the small gravel in the big jar of people's needs in a situation of increasing poverty, illness and homelessness due to this painful war that does not spare anyone.
The projects that were implemented recently thanks to your financial support include the completion of eight flats in Nebek’s “Christian quarter”, where five large families having fled war-stricken Qussayr already live. The three other flats have been rented to young families from the Nebek parish. We also plan to build a fourth block in the same location and with the same goal... but we need your financial support to start.
In the monastery itself, we are currently building a dining room, as an alternative to the Bedouin tent on the monastery's terrace, which we temporarily took down for repair, taking advantage of the visitors' scarcity, so that it can be in a better state when the visitors come back – which we hope. This “Abraham's Tent”, as we call it, remains a symbol of hospitality, one of the pillars of our vocation to dialogue.
We put our dear homeland Syria before the Nativity crib that announces to us the visit of the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9,6), and in His hands we also put the displaced, the sick, the poor. We take in our prayers, our feelings and our thoughts all those who live in the tents of the refugee camps in this cold winter, and we do not forget in our liturgical times all the victims of this tragic war. We put all those before You, Jesus, and we are brimming with trust and hope in You, healer of the sick, dresser of the wounds, comforter of the sad, defender of the oppressed, backer of all those who work for peace.
Visits did not stop in Mar Elian, with an increasing presence of displaced people. The monastery represents for them a place of calm and safety, and the tomb of Saint Julian (Mar Elian) provides consolation, patience and hope to the hearts.
A family from Homs has been living in the monastery for over a year, along with George, from Aleppo, and Father Jack's sister. Members of the community relay each other in the monastery, taking part in the works, along with parish's employees. We continue with patience the agricultural work, which this year was in line with the country, that is to say, a poor season with poor harvests. Besides agriculture, we focused this year on covering the monastery's archeological excavations area, as part of the effort for renovation and rehabilitation, and as a protection against the danger of monuments' looting that prevails with the current chaos in Syria. We already covered a part of it and we hope to complete this work, especially since the excavation works, finished three years ago, have left most of the area uncovered.
During the summer and despite the despair that we all live, the monastery welcomed two children camps of the parish... the cheers and the happiness of the children during the various activities was a testimony of hope for us all. We thank God for not stopping the parish activities, in spite of the fact that Qaryatein is not at all isolated from the events of the on-going war.
One of the difficulties in this period is the trespassing of the monastery's land property by some inhabitants. Fortunately, the good spirit that characterizes the relations with the Muslims, and affection towards the monastery, prevented land seizure from continuing. But these incidents convinced us to seriously plan the construction of a simple fence around the monastery's 65 hectare property. This project is not easy, especially due to the costs.
The situation in the Qaryatein's region still allows us, thanks God, to work and continue our parish and charity activities. We wish our presence to be a living testimony, as a rest staying in stability and hope.
While our country continues to struggle in the current tragedy, we stay committed in prayer and in providing everything we can to those in need, to the displaced, spiritually and materially, hoping for a new, soon-to-come dawn in which we could complement our contemplative vocation with the practice of hospitality and pursue our charisma for the dialogue with Muslims, in favor of a profound, inclusive, lasting peace and of a real reconciliation.
As for manual work, we want to renovate the monastery's kitchen, in order to improve to hospitality service. There are also other places in the monastery in need for repair and renovation. The priority in these days is the reinforcement of the buildings depending on the monastery in the mountain, in order to protect them better against thieves' attacks.
We call upon you to pray for the permanence of our presence in the monastery, so that we can live our vocation in safety with God and with the neighbour.We ask you to pray for our people and for peace in our country. We do not ask help for ourselves this year, but for the many poor and displaced people who come to us because of the war. The coin of the widow that you may give is a blessing for them, knowing that the monastery provides on a permanent basis support to a certain number of families, either affected by the war or poor, Muslims and Christians, according to our limited possibilities.
And we are at our turn committed in prayer for you, dear friends in all places. We convey to you our best wishes and congratulations for these holy days, saying: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favours”.
Your community al-Khalil
If you wish to contribute materially, please use our account managed by the Jesuits Fathers, at the following address (important : mention as cause of the transfer “Deir Mar Musa al Habashi”) :
For postal transfer :
Post account 909010 IBAN: IT16 A076 0103 2000 0000 0909 010 Beneficiary MAGIS Movimento e Azione Gesuiti Italiani per lo Sviluppo via degli Astalli, 16 – 00186 ROMA
For bank transfer :
IBAN: IT 07 Y 03069 03200 100000509259 BIC: BCITITMM Beneficiary MAGIS (Movimento e Azione Gesuiti Italiani per lo Sviluppo) at BANCA INTESA-SANPAOLO SPA Via della Stamperia, 64 – ROMA (RM)