Travelling to Syria at a time when the conflict was once again the top item on the news, I soon discovered that behind the headlines were stories of survival every bit as deserving of column inches. Those I met had astonishing tales of triumph over adversity, of tragedy and loss.
For the country’s dwindling Christian community these traumatic episodes – involving desperate food shortages, bomb blasts and the loss of loved ones – have posed an agonising question: should they stay in Syria or leave?
This urgent issue, with profound implications for the survival of a Church community dating back to earliest times, once again came up in conversation when I went to Aleppo and met a man called Antoine. His story of escape from ISIS after 62 days of incarceration, during which he lost almost half his body weight, had me on the edge of my seat.
Antoine explained how, early on in the war, he and his family were living in the east of the city when it was overrun by ISIS. One day, he went to the factory where he worked only to find the jihadis had turned it into a military command centre. They kidnapped Antoine and held him there. He was then told he had been selected for a suicide mission to government-controlled west Aleppo. He said that as the day drew near, he was lying half-awake early one morning when he felt Our Lady tap him on the shoulder. She told him to get up and make his escape.
He described tip-toeing to the main door of the factory. To his surprise, the chain and the lock fell open and he was able to slip out. He found a ladder, clambered over a high wall and ran through the high-security barrier between east and west Aleppo. He then made his way to a relative’s house and there was reunited with his family.
Antoine described how Aid to the Church in Need had then provided them with a home, food, medicine, all thanks to ACN project partner Sister Annie Demerjian. He said the support had given the family the breathing space needed to decide whether to stay in Syria. Antoine himself was for leaving. But his wife said: “We should stay in Syria. This is where we belong.”
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