Fr. Firas Lufti is superior of the Franciscan community at the Terra Sancta College of Aleppo. He is also parochial victor of the Parish of St. Francis of Assisi, now a reference point for many in the city, Christian and otherwise. In an interview he tells us about himself and the work of the Franciscans in Aleppo.
Father Firas, what are the Franciscans of Aleppo able to do in this disastrous situation?
Our main activity is welcoming. There is the Terre Sainte College which is located at the entrance of Aleppo: a large building, previously a boarding school, that is currently accommodating young people and families from the city. It is still a relatively safe place that offers an enormous space where children can play far away from the explosions and families can rest in tranquility.
Then there is the reception center for the elderly and the ill, created following the bombardment of the old city of Aleppo six or seven months ago. Here as well people are somewhat more safe and, since the building was envisioned for this service, they can make good use of it. Here at least they have some electricity, water and medicines.
The college is also used as a summer center: all of the Christians of Aleppo gather together here, since there is plenty of space. And given that it is difficult to enter and leave the city, many of them stop here for a few days.
How many people are we talking about?
In summer, if there are different groups at the same time, we are talking of 200 to 300 people. Recently numerous Muslim refugee children have also started to come, on one occasion a group of 600 children arrived! The volunteers organize games and other activities, which require a great deal of space. That is why at the present time there is only the Terre Sainte College. At first, when the Christian presence in Aleppo was significant, training camps were held outside of the city. Now Aleppo is a closed city, so that the only possibility is to find appropriate structures within the city itself. Such as ours, in fact. Staying at the center is free, which always amazes people, since it is difficult to find a place with all of the features of Terra Sancta College for free.
What does your presence mean for the city of Aleppo?
Here I can also answer: welcoming and charity are the two aspects that characterize us the most. But there is also a third, unity with others. I am also parochial victor of the Parish of St. Francis of Assisi. This is the only place that welcomes everyone and for this reason it has become a symbol for the Christians of Aleppo, and for others as well.
Our task, as Franciscans, has always been to seek encounters with the other Churches. With the war this has had incredible implications. I always think of the embrace between Pope Francis and (Russian Orthodox Patriarch) Kirill, which called to our attention the fact that we are already united in martyrdom. We, in the midst of this mosaic of religious denominations, do all we can to bear witness to this.
Which is your best memory of this?
Definitely it has been finding the entire church united for a funeral or a wedding. Orthodox and Catholics mourning together or rejoicing for a wedding, for a family that is born in spite of everything. Yes, precisely, it is the fact of being able to feel oneself concretely united as brothers.
Aiding Aleppo means making all of this possible.