A Jesuit priest in Aleppo has described how the Catholic Church is continuing to help those remaining in Syria's city despite an upsurge of intense fighting that in recent weeks has killed scores, displaced thousands and cut water and power to up to two million people on both sides of the front line.
As rebel forces pushed forward to seize the city, Fr Ziad Hilal told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): "I couldn't sleep well there because all the night we heard the bombardment and the fighting between the groups."
But, he said, the Church has stepped in to help feed the hungry – many of whom are Muslims – at the Missionaries of Mary facility in Aleppo. "We have a big kitchen, this kitchen was sponsored by ACN and other associations, and a lot of people who come – we give about 7,500 meals every day," he said. "It is a lot, and the team is a Muslim and Christian team, and a lot of the people who benefit from these meals are Muslims."
The priest said that despite the siege, there was "hope" as the Church continues to carry out weddings, baptisms and even daily mass. "On one side things are dark, things are sad – on the other hand we see the activities of the Church there and how the people, especially the Christian associations are helping. These provide a sign of hope. Our mission is important there."
Fr Hilal added that "from midnight until morning it is black – a dark city – nothing happens" in Aleppo. Electricity was highly limited, he said, with generators giving people no more than two hours of electricity a day. "Without electricity we couldn't have warmth and a lot of people couldn't go to their job also – and the city [is] divided between two sides: Between the opposition and the government, then people couldn't move from one side to the other side," he said. "And a lot of people couldn't go from here to there, from there to here, to get to their jobs – and so they lost their jobs, they lost their houses."
Fr Hilal estimated that between 27,000-30,000 Christians – around 60 per cent of Aleppo's pre-war numbers – have left the city, while those who remain there are poor and desperate for work.
"I met a Catholic family where three children are working in a restaurant, one is seven or eight years old, the other one is 10 years old and the third one, he is 14 years old," he said. "Their father has died, we don't know how, and their mother is also working. And the boss of the restaurant told me – you see these three children are working and I couldn't tell them no it is summer now because they are helping their mother. I was choked."
Fr Hilal went on: "What the people in Syria and especially in Aleppo need is security and mercy to continue their lives because it is a hard situation... It is important now to say what Pope Francis said a few days ago – 'I encourage everyone – young and old people – to live with enthusiasm in this Year of Mercy, to overcome indifference, and firstly proclaim peace in Syria is possible. Peace in Syria is possible.' This is our cry today, that peace in Syria is possible, this is the only hope for us."