Rev. Issa Maamar knows how it feels to sing the Ave Maria in Damascus while rockets are blowing up your children’s schools and your hometown.
But now the Syrian priest and refugee is leading the song in Canada. His family has escaped civil war and found safety and a peaceful life.
“You feel very happy and relaxed when you speak to your God by singing in this nice way,” said Maamar, pastor of St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Edmonton. “The main purpose of the holy songs is to make the community relaxed and to make them able to pray. This is the most important thing.”
Maamar is the first permanent pastor for the Greek-Melkite Catholics in Edmonton.
The Eastern rite church traces its history to Antioch, the ancient city in what is now Turkey, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter. Despite that history, Christians continue to be persecuted in the Middle East.
In the Greek-Melkite Church, married men can become priests. Maamar, his wife Rima Chahin and children, Jean Pierre, 14, and Anna Marie, 6 were forced to leave Syria for their own safety, but he’s been able to continue his ministry thanks to a small congregation of Greek-Melkite Catholics and a grant from the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
Maamar was a priest in Damascus for 11 years, before civil war broke out in Syria. His wife recalls their decision to pack up and leave their homeland.
“It was in 2015 when many bombs came over the schools, especially on our children’s school, and the teacher was dead,” said Chahin. “It was a terrible situation for children especially, so I couldn’t deal with that and I confessed to him at that time, we have to (go).”
Chahin was especially concerned about Anna Marie, who was waking up with nightmares “especially when she heard the sound of the bombs. She was crying most of the time.”
Maamar watched as 30 of the 80 families in his parish left the war-torn country, and he was stressed about the prospect of leaving his flock behind for an unknown future in Canada.
“If I was alone, I would not have decided to leave, but because I had a family and I wanted to protect them, I had to make this decision,” he said.
Sponsored by his brother-in-law, Maamar and his family arrived in Montreal in February 2016.
“The day when we came it was very cold, and it was snowing,” Chahin recalled. “But the white view was very peaceful. I felt relaxed when I saw the snow even if it was very cold. It was interesting for us, and we were safe.”
Maamar met with the Greek-Melkite Bishop of Canada, Ibrahim Ibrahim, who asked him to spend that Easter in Edmonton assisting Rev. Ephrem Marwa, a priest who had been dividing his time between Edmonton and Calgary.
When Maamar arrived, the Edmonton congregation reached out to Archbishop Richard Smith, who provided a grant to support Maamar as a full-time priest.
“One of the most important things to me was the support that the Melkite community here, as small as they are, extended to Father Issa and his family at considerable sacrifice to themselves,” Smith said.
“It is a real good example of a community reaching out to refugees in need.”
The congregation rents space at the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church. Mass is celebrated in Arabic, with some prayers in Greek. Since Maamar’s arrival, the congregation has more than doubled to 70 families.
“There are a lot of refugees that have come, and the fact that Father Issa is a Syrian refugee I feel like it’s a connection. They can relate to him,” said Rita Maalouf-Estephan, chairperson of the Greek-Melkite Catholic community in Edmonton.
“We’re happy to have him because he’s friendly and spiritual at the same time, and humble.”
Born in Damascus in 1972, Maamar studied theology in Lebanon and met his wife Rima during a summer break from seminary.
Maamar said he enjoyed being a priest in Damascus. “Before the war, it was very peaceful. I like to help people in any way, anybody, so it was very enjoyable.”
The most difficult part about leaving Syria was leaving their church, family, and friends behind.
“When we think now about those days, they were terrible but God helped us, and I think God helps everybody (in Syria) because without God, nobody can deal with that,” said Chahin.
The Maamar family’s harrowing ordeal is being seen as a lesson.
Archbishop Smith said the Edmonton community should not lose sight of the plight of refugees who have left terrible conditions and uprooted their lives for an uncertain future.
“They just continue to need our support and our love as they try to do their best now to contribute to the life of this community,” Smith said. “They are in a situation where they are totally deprived and that brings to the fore the true meaning of faith as the call to allow oneself to rely on God, trusting that God will turn all to the good.”
Maamar is applying to be a volunteer with Covenant Health in Edmonton, where he hopes to continue the hospital chaplaincy work he did in Syria. He is taking English lessons and receiving pastoral care training at the Archdiocese.