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Marist Bulletin - Number 158

 

SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC
07/09/2004

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SYRIAN ARAB REPUBLIC
Al-Jamhuriya alArabiya as-Suriya

In August 1904, four Marist Brothers arrived in Aleppo to run the school for Armenian Catholics in Telal Street. Today, with a hearts that know no bounds, the Marist Brothers are working through different means of education to sow the seeds of Hope.

The Country
Area: 185 227 sq km
Population: 16 729 000 (in 2001)
Population Density: 90 hab./sq km
Type of government: Presidential Republic
Capital: Damascus (2 035 000)
Other cities: Aleppo (1 840 000),
Hims (300 000)
Ethnic Groups: Arabs 88%, Kurds 5%, Armenians 3%
Neighbouring Countries: Turkey to the north, Jordan to the south, Iraq to the east, Lebanon and Israel to the west.
Highest mountain: Hermon 2814 m
Longest river: Euphrates 675 km in Syria
Important Lake: Buhayrat al Asad 600 sq km
Climate: Continental - Mediterranean
Language: Arabic
Religions: Sunni Muslim 76%,
other Muslim sects 16%, Christian 8%
Currency: Syrian pound
The Christians
The Syrian Christians form 8% of the population and are divided into about ten different rites and denominations. In order of size, they are Greek Orthodox (500 000), Greek Catholics (200 000), Armenian Gregorians (150 000), and then Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Maronites, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Protestants and Roman Catholics.
The Christians and Muslims participate in the Baath party government, which has dominated Syrian politics since 1964. This government supports an ideology of Arabic nationalism. For this reason, the Christians usually enjoy a certain amount of freedom even though around 92% of the country is Moslem. Islam is not the state religion, but the Chief of State must belong to this religion. This ensures equality for the Christians. Christian communities have the right to own property, build churches and celebrate liturgies and feasts. Priests are exempt from military service. During the last 30 years, the Alaouite dictatorship – an Islamic minority group – and the Assad family have maintained an ambiguous attitude regarding Christians. On one hand, they seem to defend Christians faced with the rise in Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, though, being a minority dictatorship, they have implemented a police state with controls at all levels of all social activities. Meetings, publications and evangelisation require government authorisation. A global catechism, approved by the government, is used by all the Christian communities in their schools. The Christian colleges, once the jewel of Syrian education, were nationalised in the 1960s. They have the appearance of being Church schools but in fact the programmes are controlled by government inspectors. The ambiguity regarding the Christians is also evident in the relationships with the communities of neighbouring countries. Because of the insecurity in Iraq, Syria has become the refuge of many Iraqi Christians. Yet, several Lebanese Christians who wanted to claim their independence from Syria are in prison in Damascus.

1954: the first 50 years
The following is taken from the Bulletin of the Institute (Volume XXI, number 153, pages 522-525) in which Brother Pierre Martin speaks to us about the Little Brothers of Mary.
The Golden Jubilee of Champagnat College in Aleppo
“To speak of a Golden Jubilee, in a country where its history is counted in thousands of years, might seem strange. What is fifty years? In the East, everything is older than fifty years: from the proud tarboosh worn by the inhabitants to the ancient ruins admired by the tourists. Baalbek, Palmyra, Djarach can count their centuries: Sidon, Byblos, Aleppo their millennia. Nevertheless, Champagnat College is not ashamed to celebrate a modest fiftieth anniversary: you cannot blame someone for being young.
In 1895, the first Marist Brothers came to the East. Previous attempts had failed. In 1904 they took possession of Abraham’s Mound: Aleppo.
Let’s think about their trip. The countryside would have certainly appeared strange to the eyes of these Europeans used to a change in scenery at every turn of the road. The steppe was red, because after the first rainfalls, the primitive plough used to turn the soil. Every now and then, a few trees were found beside some miniscule streams of water: “A little patch of green similar to a bouquet that you would offer to the desert” (J. J. Tharaud). And then they came upon a new countryside that was the same colour as a camel, a totally cloudless sky, a shadeless landscape and a hot wind driving the sand with it. Such was the horizon for four hundred and fifty kilometres. Such was the path taken by three brothers: Brothers Jean Symmaque, Joseph Neophytus and Joseph Athanas, all of whom are still alive today.
Finally, ALEPPO, “Abraham’s mound”, for the legend states that Abraham stayed here on this plateau while following the course of the Euphrates heading towards the “Promised Land”; a legend that is backed up by the topography of the country and the needs of the caravans.
Once the three missionaries had arrived, Father Augustin Sayegh asked them to run his Armenian-Catholic school, a school that was to become, under their direction, one of the finest colleges of the city. Father Augustin Sayegh, of happy memory, was a great friend and benefactor of the brothers and often joined them at table during the twenty-five years that he knew them.
It is said that some Crusaders of the Middle Ages arrived in the East with malicious intent. Our three new Crusaders arrived in the East, but full of good will. Success was thus assured.
Let’s flick through the pages of this Golden book of the College:
§ 1904: Taking over the direction of the Armenian-Catholic College.
§ 1914: 320 students: closure of the College due to the Great War.
§ 1919: Reopening of the College.
§ 1923: Opening of a second College, Saint Nicholas, in the Greek Catholic rite.
§ 1931: Change of house. Starting at Champagnat College.
§ 1945: End of the French mandate in the East. Closure and sale of Champagnat College: 745 students.
§ 1949: Reinstallation at Aleppo, in the Wizosky barracks: 102 students.
§ 1954: Golden Jubilee of Champagnat College: 837 students.
These are all the things that the College wanted to celebrate this year – including its disappointments as well as its hopes. The ceremonies from the 12th to the 19th December were a magnificent time. Brother Jean Symmaque, the founder and first Director, along with a few other “former battlers”, came to join the great number of people invited to the celebrations.
On Sunday 12th, at 9 o’clock, a magnificent sung Armenian mass was celebrated by the Armenina-Catholic Archimandrite of Aleppo, Gabriel Gaspar. A huge number of people attended this celebration in the Roman Catholic Cathedral. All prayed fervent prayers of thanksgiving for all the good that had been accomplished during the fifty years of devoted work at the College. At 11 o’clock, the singing of the National Anthem heralded the arrival of His Excellency the Governor in the courtyard of the College overflowing with people and cars. Then in the hall, Mr Naoum Sioufi, President of the Old Boys’ Association, gave a long speech in which he spoke about the work done by the Marist Brothers and his hopes for the future of the College. Those present at this celebration included Archbishop Ayoub, the Maronite Archbishop and Archbishop Hindie, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop. Syrian authorities were also present: Mr Mohafez from the city of Aleppo, the Prefect of the Municipality, the Prefect of the Police, the Colonel-Commandant of the Gendarmerie, the Director of the State Education, the Director of Private Education. The Consular Corps was also represented by the presence of Mr Denizeau, Consul General of France at Aleppo, Mr Pistre, French Consul at Aleppo, the Greek Consul, the Spanish Consul and the Netherlands Consul. The Old Boys came in great numbers, accompanied by their wives and took the opportunity to show their gratitude to the brothers.
After the talk given by Mr Sioufi, Mr Denizeau, Consul General of France, honoured Brother Gabriel Augustin with the award of Officer of Public Instruction, and Brother Mario Raffaël, Director of Champagnat College, with the award of Office of the Academy.
In his speech, Brother Director thanked the civil and religious authorities and read a telegram from the Vatican that gave an apostolic blessing to all the brothers, friends, old boys and benefactors of the brothers.
At the end of the formalities, those present enjoyed a celebratory wine while visiting the magnificent display organised by Brother Antoine, Sub-Director, summarising the fifty years of apostolate at Aleppo.
At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a basketball tournament began comprising of four teams. This was organised by Brother Vivien, the Sports-Master of the College. The “Old Boys” cup, donated by Mr Jalil Boustany, the Vice-President of the Parents’ and Friends’ Association, was won by the team from Terre-Sainte College (a Franciscan college).
In the evening the Old Boys’ Committee organised a banquet with 280 tables. The civil and military officials, who were present, were surprised by the good quality of our “Old Boys” and the cordial and pleasant atmosphere that was evident in the banquet hall.
A week that had commenced so well could only continue to do so. Monday was a holiday for our 837 students. On Friday 17th and Sunday 19th the students, friends and admirers of Champagnat College came to applaud the efforts of the young artists of the secondary classes.
Many hopes were expressed during this Marist Golden Jubilee: development, prosperity, the centenary… What does the future have in store for Champagnat College? This College, that has already survived many trials during its fifty years, continues to sustain an unfailing hope in Providence.”

In the next edition, we will cover the celebrations of the centenary.

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