Pope appoints Syriac bishop for Canada

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By Robert Frank
The prospect that Canada’s Syrian population could balloon by more than 50,000 a year prompted Pope Francis to appoint Beirut native Rev. Antoine Nassif to serve as the country’s first Syriac (Syrian Roman Catholic) bishop, Jan. 7.

The Pontiff announced that Bishop-designate Nassif, 47, currently the rector of a seminary in Charfet, Lebanon, will be based in Laval, Quebec’s third-largest city, which has become a magnet for Syrian migration to Canada.

Until now, a Syriac bishop in Newark, New Jersey, shepherded Canada’s current flock of 16,000 Syriacs and their five priests and two deacons.

Gaby Daoud, the chairman of Laval’s Syriac congregation, welcomed the news that the Pope has decided to seat the diocese here.

“Our congregation comprises all nationalities,” he told The Suburban in an interview, “but the majority of our nearly 1,000 families are Syrian.”

Laval’s Syriac community has taken the lion’s share of Syrian refugees who began to arrive in Quebec last month.

“We received about half of those aboard the planes that have arrived in Montreal,” Daoud said. “We’re helping to welcome them, though not all will necessarily eventually be settled in Laval. They are coming to us first and then they will settle throughout the Greater Montreal region.”

He underscored that Laval’s Syriacs are not limiting their humanitarian efforts to their own community.

“Every week, more families arrive,” Daoud continued. “Not all of them will remain in Laval and some of them are from other communities but we help all of them, regardless of creed.”

The new Canadian diocese will be called Sainte Marie Reine de la Paix, subtly signalling signalling the Pontiff’s hope that newcomers from war-torn Syria will at last find peace in Canada.

Syriac Catholics have been present in Canada since 1976, the Vatican said in a statement.

“We have been in Laval since 1992,” Daoud added, the year that Beirut-born Mgr. Nassif was ordained as a priest.

According to the Holy See press office, Mgr. Nassif is fluent in English, French and Italian. He served as curate at two parishes and as school principal in Charfet before being appointed to run the seminary there.

Though he is not directly related to Canada’s eponymous newly elected Liberal Member of Parliament for Vimy riding in Laval, Eva Nassif, she told The Suburban that she would be unsurprised if she were to discover, once they have had the opportunity to meet and compare notes, that they might have some common kin in Lebanon.

“Lebanon is a small country with a population less than Quebec,” she explained.

Chomedey’s Syriac church is situated in Nassif’s riding.

“I wish good him luck in his endevors,” she said in an interview. “He will have a lot of work to do with the influx of Syrian refugees because some of them will settle in Laval which has a huge Syrian community, mostly in my riding.”

Nassif commended the exemplary work that Daoud’s Syriac congregation has done in receiving refugees.

“Many parishioners have privately sponsored Syrians,” she said. “Their generosity at many fundraising events has helped considerably.”

Chomedey MNA Guy Ouellette also took time from his vacation to acknowledge the Vatican appointment.

“We are witnessing a community come together in incredible ways,” he told The Suburban in an electronic mail message. “This new appointment is another sign of the importance of Laval’s Syrian community in helping the Syrian refugees. This is wonderful news.”

Likewise, Laval’s executive committee vice-chairman took time from his holiday break to welcome Mgr. Nassif.

“It represents great confidence in Laval,” David de Cotis told The Suburban in a text message. “The endorsement is a boost for the city and for its Syrian community.”