The city of Aleppo was, until recently, the largest city in Syria: the nation’s industrial capital, located at the center of Mediterranean trade routes. It is also one of the world’s oldest, most continually inhabited cities.
In Old Testament times, Aleppo belonged to the Kingdom of Aram. In later centuries, powerful empires—including the Romans who crucified Jesus—became its occupants. But it’s not only Aleppo’s acquaintance with Father Time that makes the city stand out. As ancient Christian ruins interlace with mosques in the city center, so too Muslim and Christian populations have lived and worked there peacefully, side by side, for centuries. Because of this, Aleppo has long been a refuge for all denominations of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
Since civil war broke out in 2011, however, few would call Aleppo a place of peace. It has become, rather, a city decimated by bombs. Within the city, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced, and many of its most ancient quarters have been turned into an inferno of rubble and ruin.
But close to where the fiercest battles have raged, a small community of Christians remains in the city. They call themselves “Emmanuel,” “God with us,” and they will not leave Aleppo.
A Living Martyrdom. Among the members are parents, students, and businessmen—about a hundred adults in all. Last summer, their daily reality became perilous as attacks from both sides enveloped the city and power outages became frequent. Prices tripled for basic necessities such as fresh water, medicine, and heating fuel.
People who once employed dozens before the war have resorted to begging or selling cigarettes to have a bit of money at the end of the day. One man’s car, paid for by his entire life’s savings, went up in smoke when hit by a shell. Whole apartment buildings have collapsed, killing and trapping people inside. These are firsthand accounts that my friends in the Emmanuel community shared with me while they were in Beirut, Lebanon, for a short visit before returning to Aleppo.
It is heart wrenching to hear about the daily pressure afflicting our brethren in Aleppo. They face the real threat of being killed as “infidels” by people who hate the Christian faith. They are in a constant state of alert. Relentless explosions interrupt their sleep to remind them that things are not normal. Parents worry about their children’s safety, and with good reason.
One young man—a bright university student—was crossing the street when something in him compelled him to freeze midstep. He stopped suddenly, and at that moment, a bullet whizzed past his face. He could feel its heat as it passed in front of his nose. “I was saved!” he told me, eyes glistening.
Providentially, at the time of this writing, none of the Emmanuel community members have been hurt in the conflict. But in a way, their lives are a living martyrdom. They are convinced that through their “death” to comfort and safety, they are being living witnesses to the saving love of Christ in that city.
Becoming More like Jesus Every Day. When asked, “Why do you stay?” my friends in Aleppo answer with deep conviction. “Our fight is of a spiritual nature,” one tells me. Another adds, “What is at stake is the future and the survival of Christians in Aleppo, in Syria, and maybe in all of the Middle East.” As the early Christians banded together after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Emmanuel community members have banded together to give witness that Jesus is alive, even in the midst of war. The believers’ strong commitment to one another is evident.
Some have chosen to stay when given the chance to move out of harm’s way or abroad. The employer of a young husband in the community offered to relocate him and his wife to a safer part of Syria for work. They even offered him a salary raise. But the couple chose to stay. “Our greatest fear was to miss out on helping with the mission that God has called us to with the others,” he said.
What is the mission? It is, against all odds, to proclaim the good news of God’s love and to be guided together by the Holy Spirit. As one community member wrote at the height of the battle of Aleppo this past fall: To be more like Jesus is the call of every Christian every day.
Rather than succumbing to deep fear and a vicious pursuit of basic necessities, the community members who have stayed choose to focus on cultivating fruit of the Spirit in their lives: mutual support, humility, and faith. They continue to meet as a group to pray and to be formed in character and purpose. This “resurrection” of faith requires tenacious hope in Jesus’ victory over death and sin.
Every day it is difficult to exercise faith and trust in God’s protection without being careless or negligent. One mistake or wrong turn could cost a life, but miraculous incidences of God’s protection have nudged them to persevere.
The Harvest of Perseverance. Story after story shows the power of intercession. At four o’clock one morning, a hand grenade landed like a hot coal next to a young man in the community who was away from home. A hundred miles away, his mother awoke at that very hour, saw him as if in a dream, and prayed for him. He told her later that he felt completely immobilized when the grenade landed near his feet. It failed to explode, however, and he came out unharmed. Mother and son were left in wonder by this answered prayer for safety.
Emmanuel members have also prayed as a group for breakthroughs in the practical challenges of war. When a crucial access road to Aleppo was closed, the entire community prayed for it to open. Seven days into their prayer, the access road was opened for delivery of essential goods for survival. “Just like in Joshua 6:20,” one woman excitedly recounted, “on the last and seventh day of our humbling ourselves before God . . . the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.”
Every day, members are seeing wonders from God—and they see in those events an opportunity for sharing their faith. More than during times of peace, they say, people are responding to their message and committing their lives to Christ.
United in Hope and Trust. I can’t help but think of Psalm 91 when I speak with the brothers and sisters who choose to remain in Aleppo. They exhibit the same trust that the psalmist showed when he said, “My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:2). They exhibit the same hope that the early Christians held on to after the Messiah had risen from the dead; as other people lost faith, the apostles saw that God was powerfully at work.
Still, I feel that we need to pray continuously for the safety of Aleppo’s Christians, knowing that the turbulence in the city is not over. As we celebrate the Easter season, let’s not stop praying for them. Let’s follow Emmanuel’s example and bear each other’s burdens, share each other’s joy, and love one another as Christ has loved us.
André Codouni is a member of the People of God community of the Sword of the Spirit in Beirut, Lebanon.
Most of us reading these dispatches from Aleppo sit in the safety of our homes. But as the body of Christ, we are intimately united with these living martyrs. Their stories of hope belong to us because their saving God is our saving God too. Their miracles renew our faith, and their suffering gives us strength to persevere in our own hardships. We are one body, experiencing ups and downs together, no matter how many miles apart we live.
Concretely, we can help carry the burdens of persecuted Christians by sending prayers and encouragement. When people in the city have Internet access, they find solace in the messages of solidarity sent via social media from people all over the world. And when in dire need, they rely on our material aid through Catholic relief organizations.
To help needy people in Syria, donate to the Caritas Internationalis Syria Appeal. You can give directly online at: https://www.ammado.com/community/131480/donate.