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Mercy, prayer and faith sustain Syrian Christians who fled terrorist persecution

Khachadour Djandji’s family lost their Aleppo home four years ago in the ongoing civil war in Syria. Everything was destroyed, from furniture to silverware, and even the floor.

By the grace of God, Djandji said he and his wife were not home at the time.

Djandji was part of the Christian minority in his homeland, and the situation in Syria is something he does not discuss often. But he did open up a little bit, offering a glimpse into his past during a April 1-3 Lenten mission on persecuted Christians at the Dormition Ukrainian Catholic Church in Edmonton.

“We don’t talk about back home. If we talk about war, what’s new? We can’t do anything about it,” said Djandji, who fled war-torn Syria in 2015 and has built a new life in Canada through the sponsorship of St. John Bosco Parish in Edmonton. “I feel we should just look ahead to the future to what we can do  ̶  how we build the Church, grow the Church.”

Since 2011, Syrian Christians have endured years of persecution at the hands of supporters of ISIS, the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq. Christian villages such as Mardeh and Tel Tal have been bombed and decimated, churches such as the Good Shepherd Church in Afrin set on fire, and over 1,000 Christians have been killed, according to news reports.

Even in the midst of so much suffering, their faith is unshakeable, said Rev. Ephrem Kardouh, who led the Lenten mission and shared his experiences in Syria and his insights into prayer and spiritual life.

“We don’t know the number in Syria, the number of families who gave up their lives for the sake of just keeping the faith,” said Kardouh, who was born in Syria and is the pastor of St. Basil’s Melkite Catholic Church in Calgary.

“Some people were told, ‘If you convert to Islam, we will save your life.’ But we don’t. We live by our faith, it’s not something we take for granted. Because of our faith and conviction with the Church and the old traditions, we were willing to stand up. Some were killed, beheaded by ISIS and other groups, and some were able to escape and tell us these stories.”

Approximately 90,000 Christians were killed in 2018 because of their beliefs, according to the International Society for Civil Liberties and the Rule of Law. Along with the Middle East, Nigeria has also been ravaged with massacres against Christians. Between 2,900 and 3,000 Nigerian Christians were killed in 2018, and 425 have been killed in the first three months of this year.

Oscar Datul, who lives in Edmonton, emigrated to Canada from the Philippines in 1990. His homeland is one of the most Christian countries in Asia, yet the Philippines has still faced its own persecutions  ̶  such as a bombing attack during a Mass on the island of Mindanao in 2010.

Kardouh maintains a close connection with Syrian Christians who have made their way to Canada.

Rev. Issa Maamar, Rev. Ephrem Kardouh, Sister Lucia Da Silva, Bishop David Motiuk, Sister Marianna Golebiowska and Rev. Bo Nahachewsky display the icon of Our Lady Help of Persecuted Christians.Kyle Greenham, Grandin Media

Despite losing everything from their homes to jobs, and even their families, Kardouh said that when they enter an Eastern Rite Catholic church, they realize the one thing they have not lost is their faith.

“When they enter a Byzantine Church they realize they have not lost that connection,” he said. “The first thing they see is the icon of the Blessed Mother carrying Jesus and then they feel at home. They say, ‘The Church is my true homeland.’”

The Lenten mission was a collaboration between the Dormition Ukrainian Catholic Parish and St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic Parish.  During the mission an Akathist hymn – a prayer to saints in the Eastern traditions – was offered for the protection of oppressed Christians across the world. It was prayed before an icon of Our Lady of Help of Persecuted Christians, commissioned by the Knights of Columbus. Father Kardouh, along with Rev. Bo Nahachewsky and Bishop David Motiuk of the Ukrainian Eparchy, led the hymn.

On the final night of the three-day mission, the hymn was sung in Arabic.

The Lenten mission was organized in partnership with the Knights of Columbus as part of their efforts to provide assistance and advocacy for Christians in the Middle East – particularly in Syria and Iraq.

The Lenten mission was a collaboration between the Dormition Ukrainian Catholic Parish and St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic Parish, who feel at home in the Eastern Catholic tradition of Ukrainian-Canadians.Kyle Greenham, Grandin Media

Father Kardouh maintains contact with his family in Syria. The country is seeing a measure of peace with the decline of ISIS and the civil war moving to more northern areas. But for Christians, there is still a danger of persecution.

“It is less than it was two or three years ago, but it is still going on,” Djandji added.

“Until they stop all of the war in Syria, that will stay the same. It will still go on.”

Devotion to daily prayer was also a centrepiece of Kardouh’s message, reminding attendees that daily prayer allows Christians to see Christ everywhere and in all things  ̶  even in times of grieving.

“I think we all do that, most especially in times of difficulties. Our minds are always working, thinking “Oh God, help me.’  That to me is an unceasing prayer,” said Datul. “When he said that prayer should be considered as if you are breathing, as in it should be unceasing, I liked that because it has been a practice for myself for a long time now.”

Reflecting on the torment endured by Christians of his homeland, Kardouh also described the importance of praying for mercy.

“Whatever happens in our lives as Christians, we live by our principles,” he said. “We cannot go and kill because Christ told us to love our enemies and be merciful to them. It’s a miracle that some Syrians – their families have been killed and yet they have a forgiving heart.

“Mercy is the oil of God’s love poured out to heal us.”