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from issue no. 02 - 2007

An interview with Antoine Audo, Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo

«They flee knowing they won’t return again»

Interview with Antoine Audo by Gianni Valente

The Jesuit Antoine Audo, the 61 year old Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo since 1992, unexpectedly finds himself having to deal with aid and the pastoral care for the 40,000 Iraqi Chaldean refugees in Syria. An emergency faced with good will, but little means.

Bishop Antoine Audo. In the background, the view of churches and mosques to be enjoyed from the terraces of the Chaldean Cathedral of Aleppo

Bishop Antoine Audo. In the background, the view of churches and mosques to be enjoyed from the terraces of the Chaldean Cathedral of Aleppo

What do the Christians fleeing Iraq tell you?
ANTOINE AUDO: The prime motive of the people attacking them is almost always to steal their money and even force them to flee so as to appropriate their homes. Then there are the kidnappings. They take priests, boys and girls. And even one kidnapping is enough to sow panic in a whole district and make fifty, a hundred families flee… Into all that is woven the relentless spread of Muslim fanaticism. They threaten the girls forcing them to wear the veil at school or at university. They make threatening phone calls or write threatening letters: if you don’t all get out – they say – we’ll kill you...
Are the Christians targeted more than others?
AUDO: The episodes of violence strike everybody. But in tribal societies, when there are problems people seek to defend their own group. And the Christians don’t have that sort of protection. Now that there’s no State power there to guarantee the security of the streets, of the markets, of the night, they are most exposed.
What most strikes you in the situation of the refugees?
AUDO: The women cause me most distress. Here, above all in the poorer classes, the men don’t generally show much sense of responsibility. In our families it’s often the women who have to bear all the burden. And I notice how many of them now are tired, embittered, disorientated by what has happened. They age rapidly under an accumulation of pain, illness, poverty. They lived in a traditional society, inside a tribal system where there was mutual help. Now that fabric has disintegrated, they’ve all fled here and there, in a few months they’ve lost everything: home, security, affection. That’s how they arrive in Damascus: and in the big city it’s easy to get lost.
Are you referring to the phenomenon of prostitution?
AUDO: In large urban agglomerations that, too, happens out of need and loss of bearings. As does the exploitation of child labor. Phenomena to which no one here was accustomed.
What is the prevailing opinion about the war that caused all this?
AUDO: To sell its war the US administration used the language of democracy and freedom. They attached Iraq as the weak link, but they aimed at the whole area, and there were those who sought victory at different levels, domestic and international. I have seen Christians begin to cry as they remembered the days of Saddam. It has come to that. He was a dictator, but what people are saying now is: if this is freedom and democracy, we don’t want it.
Are there differences among the current situation of the refugees and what happened in 1991?
AUDO: The people who fled then were mostly deserters from the army. The perception of being hit at because of being Christians was less strong. And this time it’s clear that almost all flee knowing they’ll never return.
Has the Chaldean Church organized aid?
AUDO: In 1991 we found ourselves unprepared. This time, even before the war started, I suggested to the patriarchs and bishops that they ask CARITAS to help the Iraqi refugees who would be arriving. But the substantial influx only began a year after the war. At that point we had collaboration from Help to the Suffering Church, from Missio, from the Friends of Raoul Follerau Association. Every two or three months we distribute prime necessities to the poorest families. We try to give a contribution of 200 dollars to those who are faced with health expenses for operations and specialized treatment. They’re few things, but everybody comes looking for them, not least for a kind of psychological relief, to have the assurance that they’ve not been abandoned. Now each Friday the Greek-Catholic Patriarchate in Damascus makes space available for teaching catechism to more than a thousand kids who’ve fled Iraq. And the churches are always packed. Masses, morning prayers, prayers in the evening… It’s striking on Sunday mornings to see the elderly deacons arrive with prayer books and begin to sing the hymns of praise. It’s an extraordinary thing, splendid to see, amid such difficulty and worries.

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