Damascus priest ministers to Syrians in the 'depths of fear'

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As fighting spreads to Syria's commercial center Aleppo, a priest in the capital Damascus says people are facing “very difficult” conditions, running low on food and fuel while struggling against despair.

“Please pray for us. Pray for our present and for our future. Pray so that (the violence) stops and that somebody saves what can still be saved,” said the priest, unidentified for safety reasons, in comments to the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need released July 25.

Government forces said they had expelled most rebel fighters from the capital as of July 23, repelling an attack that began nine days earlier. But as fighting shifted to Aleppo on July 25, 200,000 of Damascus' 1.7 million residents remained displaced in the aftermath of the fighting.

The priest who spoke to Aid to the Church in Need recalled how, on July 22, he celebrated Sunday Mass “against the sound of gunfire and explosions” for the first time in his life.

“We prayed intensely for peace. Afterwards, the believers embraced me with emotion. Although they were still afraid, they went home strengthened,” he said.

With temperatures in the capital reaching almost 110 degrees Farenheit, Damascus residents are running low on bread as well as gas and electricity. Daily life is “very difficult” and many residents are in “the depths of fear,” the priest said.

“God alone knows how difficult it is for me to find words to encourage the people not to give up hope,” he told family and friends in a letter. But he intends to stay, saying he is “a priest in good and bad times. This means I am a ‘father’ and must now remain with my people.”

Syria needs prayer from believers around the world, he told the Catholic charity.

“Material aid is important but the depths of fear and loneliness cannot be overcome by money. It is important for us in Syria to know that we are not alone.”

The priest's comments were released as tanks and troops massed in Aleppo, where regime forces and rebels are in their fifth day of fighting. The government has ramped up air and land assaults in response to major advances by rebels during the past week.

On July 23, Aleppo's Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo said that Christians in the city risked a repeat of what happened in Homs during the spring, when attacks on the city's Christian quarter displaced over 120,000 people.

Catholics and other Christians in Aleppo fear that the “situation of anarchy” will permit a “disastrous” assault on churches and ecclesiastical headquarters, the bishop said.

There are “very complicated” reasons for Syria's religious tensions, Bishop Audo noted. But he stressed that the presence of combatants in Christian areas “would be very bad.”

He also highlighted the need for food and medical aid, saying “more and more people” were seeking help – sometimes coming to the bishop “with nothing more than the clothes they are standing up in.”

Bishop Audo feels under pressure to support either the rebels or the regime, but says he is simply “on the side of my country. I am doing whatever I can to save Syria, this lovely country of ours.”

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