At the moment, things remain quiet in Latakia. Here, in this Maronite diocese in northwest Syria, the war has not yet intruded into their everyday lives. That is why most of the Christians have fled here – into the welcoming arms of Bishop Antoine Chbeir.

He became Bishop of Latakia just six months ago. On the border of his new diocese the war is still raging. Every day more refugees arrive, both Christians and Muslims. With a population of over 50,000 faithful it is the largest Maronite diocese in the country.

In Damascus there are just 3,000, and in Aleppo 1,000 Catholics of this Eastern Church, which has always been in full communion with Rome. Yet despite all the problems, Bishop Antoine remains hopeful. He did his doctoral thesis on Job, the ‘man of suffering’ who loses everything, yet through his humility and trust in God has everything restored to him again. ‘The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord’, says Job in the face of his trials.

Bishop Antoine could give lectures about the meaning of suffering. But he prefers to convey this meaning in a direct and human manner. He prays together with the faithful; and he visits them in the war-torn regions on the edge of the diocese, in Homs and in Hama, where Islamists made a point of shooting at every cross they saw. In many of the churches they do not have even the barest essentials – chalices, a crucifix, liturgical vestments…

‘I was 13 years old when the war in Lebanon began. Ever since then I have been familiar with the uncertainty and insecurity of daily life – whether there was anything to eat, or whether there were snipers hiding on the rooftops, whether a car bomb would go off or a government would fall.’ 

He later moved from the relative security of his village in Lebanon to the town of Tartus. Living in the midst of the refugees’ misery, he still seeks God, just like Job. From this economic and human catastrophe God will draw a spiritual treasure, he says, adding that, even on weekdays, his cathedral is full; on Sundays people can barely find a place. The people are constantly praying, both before and after Holy Mass; mostly the Rosary, he tells us. They pray for peace and for help to be able to stay on in their own country.

Bishop Antoine’s first concern is for his priests and for the refugees. In many parishes, he tells us, the priests ‘have neither money nor even a roof over their heads. Often not even a bed or a bathroom’. As for the refugees, they need bread and clothing. ‘Hungry stomachs have no ears’, he says, quoting a well-known
Syrian proverb.

The small allowance of €140 a month that he tries to give his priests is not enough from them to both live on and support the parishes. And he can only rarely afford to give them this much. Six of his 32 priests are sick or elderly; the income of the diocese covers just 2% of the costs. The people in his parishes generally have to manage on just €2 a day. They have nothing to spare for their priests. It is an impossible situation – just like in the Book of Job.

But Bishop Antoine is counting on God’s Mercy, counting on the Eucharist. He has asked us for Mass offerings. He is offering to give talks on the New and the Old Testament, as there is nothing else he can offer.

But we have no need to hear his talks to know what God wills and what the bishop, his priests and the refugees actually need – active deeds of mercy.

This article can be found in Mirror 0815.