Fadel Sakkal will always remember the Easter celebrations in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where beautiful historic churches overflowed with worshipers spilling out the doors into the streets.
“For years we lived in peace with our Muslim brothers,” he sighed after mass at St. Maron’s Catholic Church in Minneapolis. “I pray that day comes again.”
This Easter season, the holy day is particularly poignant for the families of Syrian and other Middle Eastern Christians who now call Minnesota home. Thousands of Christians have been killed since the eruption of civil war in Syria in 2011, while an estimated half million have fled the country.
Muslim extremists have destroyed churches and attacked Christians — kidnapping, killing and even crucifying. This month, Congress labeled the persecution “genocide.” Nearly everyone at St. Maron’s has loved ones back home. It creates deep spiritual needs.
“You minister to people’s worries here — and to people’s worries there,” said the pastor, Sharbel Maroun. “They carry a cross here and there.”
Past is always present
Hundreds of worshipers in their Sunday best packed into St. Maron’s last week, a church serving a Middle Eastern congregation, largely from Lebanon. The sweet scent of incense filled the air. Squirmy children carried candles and flowers for their Palm Sunday procession. The choir sang traditional hymns in Arabic and Aramaic.
The festivities were punctuated by dark realities. Maroun, in a white robe at the pulpit, lifted his head in prayer. He asked God to bless Christians across the Middle East who are struggling.
“Our prayers and hearts go out to the two [Syrian] Orthodox bishops who are still kidnapped for the last three years, to the four nuns of Mother Teresa who were slaughtered in Yemen last week and to the millions of other Christians who are celebrating this Palm Sunday in the shelters and amidst persecution,” he said.
For a young family in the pews, the examples are a reminder of their blessings here. May, a Syrian mother who feared using her full name, lives in constant anxiety for loved ones back home. The family left Syria shortly before the persecution erupted, she said, and with each news headline and photograph, her heart breaks.
After mass, May opened her cellphone to a photograph of the rubble of an ancient monastery, adding sadly, “I used to go there [to pray].” The destruction of the country’s Christian heritage means “the places in our memories are gone forever,” she said.
Her mother, Cassie, said people from her village were getting kidnapped by Muslim extremists, “and even if they pay ransom, they bring back the body dead.”
Sakkal has worked in the U.S. for years but still lives between both worlds. He grew up in the ancient city of Aleppo, long home to Syria’s largest Christian community. Its Chaldean bishop this month estimated the city’s roughly 160,000 Christians have dwindled to 40,000.
Sakkal’s cousin was one of its most recent casualties. He died when a bomb exploded on his house, killing him as he slept.
Although Aleppo’s Christians are not under direct attack by Islamic extremists, as they are in a government-controlled area, the militants are looming in the countryside just outside the city. There’s a severe shortage of food, water and basic provisions, he said. And there is sectarian violence inside the city.
“The situation is very difficult,” he said. “If people leave their homes, they might not get them back.”
Pastor Maroun acknowledges these difficult situations in his homily and prayers, and tries to recreate a religious experience that reminds his congregation of home.
His Easter week celebrations replicate what happens at Maronite churches back home, he said. That includes a Good Friday service in which the figure of Jesus is literally removed from the cross and placed in a coffin. The coffin is closed, and reopened Easter Sunday — empty.
“It’s an amazing celebration,” he said.
A war within wars
Although Christians have been in a minority in Syria, representing about 10 percent of the population, they have lived relatively peacefully with Muslim neighbors, said worshipers at St. Maron’s. The persecution took root after the Arab Spring movement in 2011 attempted to overthrow President Bashar Assad. That morphed into wars within a war. The pro-Assad forces are battling their opposition. Sunni Muslims are fighting Shiite Muslims. Islamic extremists are targeting Christians. The international community has entered the conflict.
“Christians are a powerless minority,” said May. “They are caught in the middle.”
Iraqi Christians also are caught in the violence, said a table of Iraqis gathered in St. Maron’s social hall. Two men in the group had worked as contractors for U.S. companies in Iraq, and fled several years ago when their lives were at risk.
Ragheed Azzo said his home was near Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad, where 58 people were gunned down during Sunday mass in 2008 by an affiliate of Al-Qaida. He also has lost co-workers to violence.
Sabah Jando, sitting next to him, said that the village where his family lived was destroyed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, along with at least a dozen other villages. His home is gone forever.
“Even though we are celebrating [Easter week], we still think about the people there,” said Jando. “We pray to God that he can help.”
“During Easter and every day, we feel the pain of Christians,” he said. “Every day I think about my family there. They may face a danger, a bomb, kidnapping, you never know.”
Even so, these families carry on the tender traditions from their homelands. This weekend, May will boil eggs in water with almonds and onion tops to color them brown. She will buy a long branch with flowers, and attach tiny chocolates and little toys for her daughter. On Sunday, the family will go to church and share dinner.
And she will pray for Christians back home.
“Easter is very important to us,” said Maroun. “It is the source of life and hope.”