Syria: interview with Jean François

Jacopo Battistini8 March 2024

“The situation is difficult. We don’t solve Syria’s problems, but we stand by the people. And this is an important sign of hope for everyone.” Jean François Thiry has been living in Aleppo for a few months to coordinate the projects of Pro Terra Sancta. On the occasion of the anniversary of the war that devastated Syria, we interviewed him to understand the current situation in this nation often overlooked by the media.

Jean Francois, with respect to the humanitarian crisis, has there been a recovery over the last few months since you have been there, or has the situation worsened?

In recent months, I have met only one person who wishes to stay here and contribute to his country. He is an individual committed to education who has decided not to abandon his homeland. Everyone else only talks about fleeing and complains about worsening economic conditions. I don’t think I can give any positive signals. It is true that some businesses are reopening, but this is mainly due to the efforts of local churches that work to support Christians. However, the macroeconomic situation is tragically precarious, with rising gas prices and a lack of essential services. It is extremely difficult to detect signs of recovery.

What is the importance of church work if there is a lack of hope?

First of all, the role of the Church is to remain at the side of the population, especially local Christians, providing them with support and not abandoning them, especially the elderly who cannot leave the country. Secondly, the work of the churches fosters cohesion among the various religious communities. Although there is talk of an excellent understanding between Christians and Muslims, it must be understood that there are still deep divisions and resentments related to history and war. Therefore, our commitment represents a gesture of charity that breaks the cycle of hatred and evil. We work with both Christian and Muslim communities to promote openness and mutual collaboration.

Is the work of Pro Terra Sancta a sign of hope?

Our efforts are focused on two fronts: on the one hand, we support the survival of Christians in Aleppo by providing them with material support and repairing damage to homes. On the other hand, we promote interaction and solidarity between Christian and Muslim communities, seeking to overcome cultural barriers and to mutually understand the difficulties each faces. It is important to show Christians the situation of Muslim families, who are also seriously affected by the war. This helps us to consolidate the sense of brotherhood and solidarity between different faiths.

What is the perception of the population regarding this interminable war?

Currently, many believe that the war is over, but in reality, economic sanctions prevent effective peace. In addition, there is widespread internal corruption that hinders the country’s reconstruction and progress. Syria is fragmented, with several areas under the control of the Assad government, the Kurds or the Turks. This situation contributes to instability and uncertainty.

What made you decide to go there and what is it like to live in Aleppo?

In 2017 I visited Damascus and met Syrian Christians, and was impressed by their unconditional faith. I have seen people willing to sacrifice their lives for their faith. Since then, I’ve had a desire to do something to support this community. Living in Aleppo is an intense and challenging experience. I focus on being present and sharing life with the local people. Despite the difficulties, I have been welcomed with affection and gratitude, which impels me to continue my work with renewed commitment and hope. I feel a great responsibility also because there are so many people who donate for Syria and I would like their help to arrive and really go to respond to the needs that are there. I am really very grateful, because I think that in Europe we are beginning to understand the importance of the Christian community here, right where Saint Paul was converted.