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Marist Bulletin - Number 168

 

SYRIA (2)
11/11/2004

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SYRIA (2)

In this Bulletin Number 158, you will find some views on the present day situation in the Syrian Arab Republic. It also looks back on the 50 years of Collège Champagnat in Aleppo. Brother Georges Sabé, who was born and grew up in Aleppo, answers a few questions on the life and mission of the brothers in this country.

What do the brothers do here?
By the legislative decree number 127, dated 9th September 1967, the government nationalised Collège Champagnat. It granted the Marists the possibility of occupying the community apartments.
The brothers maintained a symbolic presence there until 1975 when a community was established to continue the Marist educational presence in Aleppo.
This presence can no longer be seen as only symbolic. The Marists have an education mission, even if it is not in a school. New pathways need to be discovered.
The brothers look after two groups of scouts:
The group Champagnat-Brothers has educated hundreds of young people in the Marist spirit through scouting since 1976 until today.
The group Champagnat-Jabal (referring to the neighbourhood of Jabal el Saydé) was started first. Some young people, feeling the urgency of a Marist scouting education in the poorer neighbourhoods, dared to start a group for the children of this neighbourhood. Brothers and young people are continuing with this project in a spirit of enthusiasm and hope.

How have you responded to the General Chapters that invited the brothers and laypeople to work together with more children and young people who are poor and neglected, through new avenues of education, evangelisation and solidarity?
Several laypeople have participated in Marist formation sessions in Europe. On their return, they invited couples to form the “Champagnat Marist Family Movement”. Currently, two families, each with six couples, meet on the average two times a month to reflect, pray and share Marist spirituality with the brothers.
One couple has made a step forward. They have started the “Marist Club” for young people from the ages of 15 to 17. Through informal education, these young people are shown how to live with Marist values and to be aware of the reality of other young people who are not as well of as they are.
In partnership with the brothers, some lay Marists started a project of solidarity in 1986. Currently, about one hundred poorer families benefit from this project through such things as accommodation, medical care, education and leisure activities for their children, the promotion of women’s issues, as well as many other micro projects. A few couples form this group of solidarity with the brothers.

What exactly do they do?
During this centenary year, the community consists of three brothers. With the laypeople, they continue the Marist mission through the two dimensions of education and solidarity.
With some young female volunteers, they have started an education project for the children who have not reached school age. “Learning to grow” has as its objective the eradication of poverty through education, teaching and the development of the whole person.
The brothers work with some ladies in the project “Training and Development for Women”, which has as its objective the development and personal growth of women through communication, listening, reflection in common and through dialogue. This project addresses women’s issues in destitute families.
The project “Mosaïque” is aimed at adolescents from the poorest families. It hopes to give these adolescents the chance to meet each other in a simple and healthy atmosphere marked by the Marist spirit.
In the same educational perspective, the community keeps its doors open to young people who want to pray, study, seek spiritual accompaniment, play or simply share the daily life of the brothers.

What does Syria represent for Christians?
In order to understand the meaning of our presence, it is necessary to understand the place of our mission, in other words Syria.
Syria is the cradle of civilisation and the cradle of Christianity. Speaking only of Christianity, I remind you that it was at the gates of Damascus, the capital of Syria, that the Lord appeared to Saul and invited him to a conversion. The first community of Damascus catechised Paul and prepared him for baptism and the mission of being the apostle of the nations. At Antioch, a Syrian town until the start of the 20th century, the believers were called Christians for the first time. To the north of Aleppo, 700 Christian sites, going back to the time between the 2nd and the 11th centuries, give witness to the vitality of the Christian communities of this period, with a stylite ascetic lifestyle, the greatest saint representing this tradition being Saint Simeon the Stylite.

What sense does Marist presence have?
Currently, Syria is a mosaic of communities. The Moslem majority is composed of Sunnites, Shiites, Druses, Ishmaelites and others. The Christians represent 8% of the population and the Christian community is composed of six Catholic Churches (Greek, Armenian, Chaldean, Syriac, Marionite and Latin) and three Orthodox Churches (Greek, Armenian and Syriac).
To be found at the heart of the Moslem world, at the heart of the Arab world, to be Christians and Arabs. To be consecrated religious at the heart of a Church with many faces, to try to be a presence for the young people where they are and particularly for the most destitute among them, to accompany the young people, to try to be a simple, open, welcoming presence to young people in order to show them a new face of the Church, to go further than the barriers that separate, to witness to the values of the Gospel by speaking the language of the Koran with the Moslem world, to be Arabs among Arabs with a reconciled peaceful heart, isn’t all of that the sense of this Marist educational presence?
We must not forget the different statements of Saint Peter, especially these last years, which concern the future of Christians in this region. Our presence and our solidarity particularly with the poorest of the poor can be only a part of the answer that the Church is invited to give.

What work is the most significant?
Today, we feel that the social project of solidarity with the poorest of the poor represents an important and urgent mission in the Church of Aleppo. This project that, at the start, was only a project of accommodation, includes today several micro projects, such as: education of the very young, the promotion of women, the scouting movement or the young adolescents club.
We believe that a special attention to the most destitute and the education of young people in justice, in sharing and in solidarity are the priorities. As well, we cannot forget vocation ministry, by welcoming, personal accompaniment and the invitation to follow Jesus in the way of Marcellin.
I have to say that these works are still more significant due to the true partnership that we live between brothers and laypeople, young people and even younger ones.

What difficulties do you encounter?
Our real difficulties consist of being understood by the local Church and of convincing the people today that to be a brother today does not necessarily mean having a school and even less, running it.
Another real difficulty consists of finding young managers for our different movements.
The mass exodus of families and young people through emigration represents more than a difficulty.

How are you sowers of hope?
Our community knows that we represent another face of the Church for young people – less clerical, closer to them, to their realities, more open and more supportive. It is not easy for our young people to see this Marist face in many of the people of the Church. We listen often to what they are saying. We are conscious that for the destitute families, we Marists are a sign of hope.

How do you see their future?
It must be said that the situation of the Near East is explosive and alarming. Will the Christians of the East continue to live in the land that Jesus loved and chose?
The future is hope; the hope to resist the temptation to abandon these people and the land, the hope that the Marist mission shared between laypeople and brothers will grow through new vocations. It is true that our number has diminished but wasn’t the first community at La Valla formed with only two brothers? Since 1998, the Lord has invited four young men to follow him in the Marist Institute. Our community has had the grace of welcoming three of them for a community experience and the postulancy. Today, one of them is part of the community and the other two are continuing their formation in Spain.
To envisage the future in hope is to accept to be always concerned for the young by keeping our doors open to welcome them, to listen to them and to walk with them.
To envisage the future in hope is to feel that the Christians in the West are no longer surprised by our existence as Arab Christians.
It is difficult for us to envisage the future without our own identity. We cannot lose this in the European mould. Isn’t envisaging the future, according to the words of Brother Seán, S.G, accepting the diversity of cultures, of visions and of situations, accepting to respect this mutually and to make diversity a source of enrichment?

Do you feel that you are “Marist Brothers of the Schools”?
Even though we do not have a school, and though we know the importance of a Marist school education, we have taken other educational paths that we consider to be Marist. Do we need to talk about a non-formal education? Perhaps, but above all we come back to the idea of the diversity of the mission. We believe that the Marist educational mission is still relevant, particularly in our country.
In this year of vocations, we pray that the Lord and Mary will bless us with new vocations, lay and consecrated, who respond to the needs of the entire world.

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