We publish immediately below the lovely letter sent by the Trappist sisters living in Syria, near Tartous (in the west of the country, close to the Lebanese border), to their Order. Words full of spirit, which ask for for continued prayers for peace and for people to become involved so that they will feel their closeness to the Syrian brothers.
Azēr, 6 September 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
At this time, by invitation of the Pope, all hearts are turned towards Syria and the sufferings of her people. We want above all to thank you for your prayers and your support which have accompanied us during the last two years, when you write to us directly or when you contact Valserena. Your prayer is for us the solid rock which has made our house stable and which allows us to experience communion with the Order. Please excuse us for not having ever replied and for not giving much news: for a whole year we were without internet, and for some months without telephone. We also suspended our chronicle letters, but perhaps we will begin those again soon.
We are well; in these recent times, the unwavering Providence of the Lord has accompanied us in amazing ways, for which we give thanks. We remain truly at peace, even if we are in profound sorrow before all that is happening to this country and this people. We have never considered leaving Syria; rather we are ever more convinced that to be here at this time is a grace for us. Our community of Valserena, our Father Immediate, the REM, have supported us in our decision not to leave, and for this also we are very grateful. A strong bond has been forged with our village (not just with some, but with all: Christians and Muslims; the children who greet us when we pass in our van; the people at the gas stations along the road; the shopkeepers in Tartous where we sometimes go to get supplies; the soldiers at the checkpoints who ask us “So, you’re staying?”).. It is a strong bond, a complete sharing in powerlessness before this war which has nothing to do with the freedom of Syrians and which is over the heads of all (and unfortunately at the cost of the lives of many, killed in atrocious ways).
We do not want to comment here on Syrian affairs. It would require saying too much, and today anyone who so desires can find much information, including “alternatives” to the sole vision which has been given uncritically from the beginning. Patriarchs speak, also bishops, imams, people of culture, but also simple citizens belonging to different faiths or opposing political parties. From Italy, in these days, we are being encouraged to engage with the media, and we will not shy from it, given the gravity of the situation and the word of Pope which urges us to do everything that might lead to peace.
Here, we want to tell you three things. First: there have been many lies told about Syria. Second: the real division in Syria today is between those who accept the way of violence and barbarity, and those who, on the other hand, want at all costs to have peace and co-existence. And this choice of peace unites Christians and Muslims, and also Muslims of various confessions (Shia, Sunni, Druze…) Third: Do all you can to encourage the ways of dialogue and peace, no matter how difficult it seems.
In this time, even in war, we have always managed to live a regular monastic life. Unbelievably, despite the paralysis of the internal life of the country, signs of life have grown up concerning our monastery: a new link with the Maronite diocese in which we are situated, and with the new bishop Mons. Elias Sleiman. When we go to Tartous, the Maronite bishop’s house is open to us; the bishop invites us to diocesan meetings (we participated at a meeting for clerics and religious on liturgical formation, two or three months ago), and above all he urges us to make our monastic life better known, setting up “days of spirituality”, in particular for young people, open to vocational discernment and who wish to know more about our life. And there are priests and religious who are entering more and more into friendship with the monastery.
Obviously, the construction of the monastery itself, which should have begun two years ago, stopped with the outbreak of serious trouble. Above all, it would be impossible, because of sanctions, to procure building materials. Today nothing is available, and if it is, it is of poor quality. However, we have managed to keep the building site open, giving a bit of work to about ten labourers, and occasionally to a few more. They work with us whether they are Christian or Muslim. We are finishing what was already begun, and in particular we have worked a lot on the ten hectares of land: drainage, all the stone walls at the perimeter of the property, an olive grove, crops, gardens, drip irrigation. We have also bought a tractor and some other farm implements. Thanks to the help which has come to us here or through Valserena from friends and many caring people, we have also been able to give help, food and basic necessities, to some poor people from the villages around us, to friends from Aleppo left in desperate conditions, and to some Syrian bishops for internal refugees in the country, of whom there are very many (especially in the nearby city of Tartous).
In fact, our monastery is located in the only zone of Syria which, although it has experienced fighting, sometimes bloody, from the outset, has remained relatively bearable and without major destruction. There have been shortages of gas, oil, electricity, and lack of work. The cost of living is very high. Yet we have not had hunger or the extreme situations that unfortunately have been experienced in other provinces. We have always been able to stay at the monastery, except for three nights in the spring of 2012, when we had to go down to the village for security. The combatants had actually arrived at our property. But we were able to go back to the monastery by day, and so we were always able to celebrate the Eucharist in our church; a gift, for us. The real danger in our area is the pressure from fundamentalist groups who want to break through the Lebanese border, close to us, to support other groups – Al Qaida, the Salafists, and others, who are located not far away, in our province of Homs.
But the people around us are very united, and we are protected by the friendship of all our neighbours, and also by that of St Michael the Archangel, present with us in an icon which we solemnly installed in the centre of the house, directly opposite the little statue of St Joseph!! It is best that way… We join wholeheartedly with the Pope’s appeal for peace, and in the prayer which unites us all. There are some who want to kill hope, but we must resist this with all our strength.
These words of Isaac the Syrian resound in a particularly significant way for us and for our being here as a monastic community in the land of Syria:
“You have not been established to invoke vengeance on actions and on those who commit them, but to invoke mercy on the world, to ensure that all may be saved, and to unite yourself with the suffering of every person, both the just and the sinners.”
Your sisters of Syria
We remind everyone of the appeal launched by Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custos of the Holy Land, to support the charitable work of the Franciscans who have remained in Syria to help the population. A small contribution can mean a lot, and bring hope to those who have lost everything.