Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus talks about the plight of Christians in Syria during a presentation Nov. 15 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit
On Jan. 8, a bomb exploded in the bedroom of Archbishop Samir Nassar, who leads the Archeparchy of Damascus, Syria. He was in a nearby room and wasn’t hurt.
The incident illustrated the point Archbishop Nassar emphasized during a Nov. 8-15 visit to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis: “We are living in a very dangerous area because of the [Syrian Civil] war,” he said. “We try to live our faith in a very difficult situation.”
The possibility of bombing is a constant threat in the fighting between Islamic regimes, although Christians are not direct targets, he said. He said that more than 60 Christian churches in Syria have been damaged since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. However, neither the danger nor the damage to his own home has dissuaded Archbishop Nassar from continuing his ministry in Damascus.
“We have to stay for witness,” Archbishop Nassar said in a Nov. 8 interview with The Catholic Spirit.
Archbishop Nassar visited Minnesota as part of a partnership that the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis recently formed with the Archeparchy of Damascus. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had requested that U.S. dioceses assist Christians in the war-torn Middle East.
Archbishop Bernard Hebda asked the Center for Mission in the archdiocese to find a Middle East diocese with which to partner. Deacon Mickey Friesen, who directs the Center for Mission in the archdiocese, suggested the Damascus archeparchy (which is like an archdiocese), after learning about it through St. Maron, a Maronite-rite Catholic Church in Minneapolis, and Catholic Relief Services. The partnership formed in 2017, bringing Archbishop Nassar and Deacon Friesen in regular contact.
“It’s like oxygen,” Archbishop Nassar said of the new partnership. “It’s more faith to share and solidarity. The Holy Spirit, I think, organizes it.”
Archbishop Nassar spoke at St. Paul in Ham Lake Nov. 9 and St. Paul in Zumbrota Nov. 10. He also presented twice at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Nov. 15. He was present for Mass Nov. 9 at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul and Nov. 11 at St. Maron, and he participated in an ecumenical prayer service at St. Maron Nov. 14.
In his presentations, Archbishop Nassar noted that Syria had been Christian before the Muslim conquest in the 600s. There, Christianity preceded the Apostle Paul, whose conversion occurred on the road to Damascus.
He noted that the Uamyyad Mosque in Damascus, visited by St. John Paul II in 2001, was formerly St. John the Baptist Cathedral, and it remains the burial site, according to tradition, of St. John the Baptist’s head.
Catholicism in Syria has been challenged in many ways, he said. Syria’s government took over Catholic schools in 1968 and designated them as public schools. Catholic children learn Islam in school, and they often live among Muslim children in their neighborhoods. Parishes offer catechesis on Fridays, when schools are closed. However, children don’t stay involved in parish lifelong, often disappearing after first Communion.
Archbishop Nassar said many young Catholics marry Muslims, who aren’t permitted to become Catholic in Syria. For a couple in which the Muslim spouse wished to convert to Catholicism, the only option would be to go to Lebanon, which borders Syria to the west. Archbishop Nassar also noted that Muslim youth greatly outnumber Catholics, since Syria’s Muslims typically have larger families than its Catholics.
“We have problems of evangelization of our people,” Archbishop Nassar said, later adding, “We are losing our young people.”
The Damascus archeparchy has 13 priests — more priests than its parishes in which to minister. Archbishop Nassar ordained a priest in 2014 who didn’t receive a parish because there wasn’t one available, but the young priest started his own parish in the south end of Damascus. There are 80 religious sisters serving in Damascus, including the archeparchy.
Lebanon supplies resources for the local Church, including religious goods such as hosts for Communion. Priests and religious study in Lebanon or elsewhere, as there is no Maronite Catholic seminary in Syria.
Since the current war between the Syrian government and several factions began following the Arab Spring protests, the Syrian Catholic Church has become less visible in society, and its processions, which once drew thousands, have moved indoors for safety, Archbishop Nassar said.
However, while the Syrian Catholic Church dwindles, another dynamic is taking shape. Archbishop Nassar noted that Iraqi refugee Catholics in Syria are overt about their faith, taking it to the streets. They have a devotion to the sacrament of reconciliation and “don’t go to holy Communion before confessions,” he said.
Maronites, Catholics of other rites and Orthodox Christians support each other in Syria, he said.
“I try to help them; I try to encourage them,” Archbishop Nassar said.