He is the first Syrian to have been appointed a bishop for his own people. On Sunday 17 September, fr. Hanna Jallouf, a Franciscan of the Custody of the Holy Land, will be ordained Bishop and will take on the position of Apostolic Vicar of Aleppo of the Latins, with jurisdiction over all the Catholics of the Latin rite in Syria. With penetrating light blue eyes, he was born 71 years ago in Khaye, in northern Syria, a land which is today in the hands of the anti-government rebels. Since the outbreak of the war, including at the risk of his own life, he has never wanted to leave his people, for whom he has become a point of reference, not only for contingent problems, but also to keep alive a faith and hope that war has sorely put to the test. Today, a few months after a devastating earthquake and with the war, perhaps less cruel, but still under way, he leaves Knayeh for a new mission. “I have prayed and I heard the Lord telling me: ‘This people is my people, this flock is my flock, it is not yours. I want you for another mission.’”
In this interview, he tells us his story and about his new mission.
How did you receive the appointment from Pope Francis?
I was not expecting it. I was totally absorbed by all the commitments and difficulties that we were facing after the earthquake. But the Lord decided to call me for another mission. I was undecided whether to accept or not, it was hard for me to leave my people. I prayed and I heard that the Lord was telling me: “This people is my people, this flock is my flock, it is not yours. And I want you for another mission.” So I accepted this appointment.
Each bishop chooses a “motto”, a phrase that identifies the spirit with which he undertakes his mission. And also a coat-of-arms, in which figures and symbols recall the origins and area from which the bishop comes, but also his spiritual references. What have you chosen?
As my motto I have chosen “Sicut qui ministrat”: “Like the one who serves” (Luke 22,27). They are the words that the Lord said to his disciples during the Last Supper. For the coat-of-.arms, above the shield there is a cross, because the Cross is our glory, our salvation is in the Cross of the Lord. I have divided the shield into four fields. At the top I wanted the Franciscan symbol (on the right) and the cross of the Holy Land (on the left) which indicate that I belong, respectively, to the Franciscan Order and to the Province of the Custody. In the lower part, to the right the map of Syria against a red background, the colour of blood, with at the centre a dove, the symbol of peace; on the left, an olive tree, the symbol of the province of Idlib, where I come from, well known for the cultivation of olive trees. At the centre, where the four fields meet, the coat of arms of Mary (the M against a blue ground) to put everything under Her protection.
Why have you chosen 17 September as the date of your ordination?
I chose this date because it is the feast day of the stigmata of St Francis. I pray that the blood of Christ can heal Syria, bloodied by war and by the earthquake and that he can give it holy and just peace and salvation.
How would you describe the situation of the Church in Syria? How many Christians are there in the country?
Before the war, the Christians made up almost 17 per cent of the Syrian population. Today, after 11 years, many have emigrated. In the province of Idlib, for example, there were 10,000 Christian faithful, today there are about 700 families, not even 8 per cent of the population. Perhaps only 3-4 per cent of the Christian population in Syria is left.
What are the challenges that the Church is called to face in Syria?
This is the first challenge: to give courage to our “children” because the war has almost made the Christian lose the meaning of life as well. Syria today is divided into two parts: one part under the official government, the other under the rebels – where I was, in the province of Idlib. Perhaps the Lord chose me because I am one of the few who is respected by both sides. Perhaps I can help pacify the two sides. It is not a mission that is only mine, but a Franciscan mission. At the last meeting I had with the head of the rebels, I spoke to him of the meeting between St Francis and Sultan Malek el-Kamil in Egypt 800 years ago. The result is that since then the Franciscans have had the custody of the Holy Places, both the people who visit them and those who live there. And I asked him to guarantee Christians’ rights and peaceful coexistence. The other challenge concerns the Church itself. The first thing I will do is visit all the parishes and the congregations that work locally, to get to know their needs. I want our religious and our priests not to forget that their responsibility is not only social but above all, spiritual.
For many years, you lived in the north of Syria, in the valley of the Orontes, known for the tragic events linked to the war and still controlled by Jihadist groups. What is the situation of the Christians in the north of Syria? And the relationship with the rebels?
When they heard about my appointment they were proud. Nobody expected that someone who is in such a deserted place could be appointed bishop for the whole of Syria. The rebels sent me a delegation to congratulate me on my appointment. On the one hand, our Christians were pleased, on the other hand they are a little frightened and sad because I have to leave everything and, for them I am a point of security and courage. Many people who would like to come to Aleppo for my ordination cannot, because the routes of communication are interrupted between the north of Syria and the rest of the country.
In a few days’ time it will be the tenth anniversary of the murder of Father François Mourad, who had sought refuge in the Latin parish of Ghassanieh, in the care of the Franciscans. Is the blood of martyrs really the seed of new Christians?
When there is a revolution, at the start there are many martyrs, many deaths, and a lot of blood. In Syria as well, the revolution at the beginning was very bloody, the Christians were harshly affected; many of our Christians were killed. But our testimony as Christians has changed everything. The Lord said “Love your enemies.” When these groups of rebels saw that we did not take up arms against them, we love them despite everything that they have done, that we are loyal, then their behaviour also changed. In 2013 Father François Mourad was killed; in 2014 I was abducted and imprisoned. And today they send me a delegation to congratulate me on my appointment…
How did you get to know and embrace the Franciscan life?
In Syria all the parishes are entrusted to the Franciscans. I was baptized by the Franciscans and I grew up with them. In the last year of middle school I met Father Ibrahim Younes, who also came from Knayeh. I began to see what he did, I went with him to visit the ill and saw with how much love, courage and tenderness he distributed humanitarian aid. So I said to myself: Why don’t I become a Franciscan as well? At 14, I entered the minor seminary of Aleppo and after my final high school exams I left for Rome where I did my first studies. Then I studied theology in Beirut but with the outbreak of the Lebanese war (1975) I continued my studies in Assisi. There, I continued to draw from the sources of Franciscanism, the spiritual life of St Francis, I was ordained in Damascus in 1979.
What do you think is the most topical point of the Franciscan charisma for Syria and for your new mission as a Pastor?
St Francis always had in mind the dimension of work and that of prayer. They are two lines which have to run together. This is the right path to save Syria and give testimony to the world about our Franciscan life.
Are there vocations for the priesthood and religious life?
There is always a little gold in mud. Even in the war the Lord sends vocations. Now, from Knayeh alone we have five youngsters are preparing for the priesthood for us Franciscans. We thank the Lord that in war, with all its evil, he continues to make vocations flourish.
Many Christians know Syria only for the “Way of Damascus”. Which treasures does Syria hold for Christians?
For the first time, the faithful were called Christians in Syria, in Antioch. Syria has given the Church many saints - the most famous is St John Damascene, but also St Tecla – and also eight popes. It is a fertile land for Christianity! We have the first sanctuary in honour of the Virgin Mary in Sednaya (Saidnaya). We have the house of St Ananias. The conversion of St Paul took place here, in Damascus. The story of Job is set in the south of Syria while monasticism flourished in the north, in particular in the experience of the stylites. St Marouan was also a Syrian, who sought refuge in Lebanon! Syria is a holy land, sanctified by the Lord and by his faithful.
Is there a prayer that you are repeating in these days before your ordination?
They prayer I say every day is a song of the Greek-Catholics which says: “Oh Lord of mercy, who are with us in our tribulations, we pray to you to save us.”