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Archives ‘Twinning’ effort continues to aid Syrian diocese

Oct. 2, 2019

Editor’s note: Pope Francis has declared October Extraordinary Missionary Month. The theme of the celebration is “Baptized and Sent.” As part of the Extraodinary Missionary Month, the North Country Catholic will be featuring stories of missionary efforts originating in our diocese throughout the month. The following is part of that series.

By Darcy Fargo

Since 2017, the Diocese of Ogdensburg has been working with the Diocese of Latakia to aid those in need and to grow in faith and knowledge as part of its “Solidarity in Faith” effort.

At the Chrism Mass that year, Bishop Terry R. LaValley announced the “twinning” arrangement with the diocese, located in war-torn Syria.Chebeir

“Bishop LaValley had attended the (United States Conference of Catholic) Bishop’s meeting, and he heard about the situation faced in Syria and the Middle East,” said Father Steven M. Murray, pastor of St. André Bessette Parish in Malone and chair of the Solidarity in Faith advisory committee. “He wanted to help.”

With some help from Bishop Gregory J. Mansour, a Maronite bishop in Brooklyn, Bishop LaValley made contact with Bishop Antoine Chbeir, his counterpart in Latakia, Syria.

From Bishop Chbeir, the Diocese of Ogdensburg has learned of the plight of the Syrian people he serves.

“People tend to be aware of the refugee crisis in Europe that’s resulted from Syrians fleeing Syria,” said Father Murray. “But there’s also a refugee crisis in Syria. People have fled the areas where there’s extensive conflict to the areas where there’s less conflict.”

Father Murray noted that Bishop Chbeir resides in Tartus, a city on the Mediterranean coast. Tartus has been relatively safe despite the conflict that has wreaked havoc in much of the country.

“Bishop Chbeir and his diocese have a lot of internal refugees,” Father Murray said. “People are showing up in his area in nothing but their pajamas, having fled their homes in the night with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They have nothing – no housing, nothing to cook with, no clothes.”

Father Murray says the Diocese of Latakia works to assist the refugees both with immediate needs and long-term needs.

“They are helping with both material needs – food, clothing, housing – and conducting education programs for youth and adults, psychological rehabilitation programs to help the displaced, especially children, and other programs to help meet their needs,” he said.

The Diocese of Latakia also has programs in place to help with medical care, heating and spiritual enrichment.
“It’s also about helping people not lose their faith,” Father Murray said. “Bishop and his people care for whoever needs to be cared for, whether it be Muslims or Christians. Bishop Chbeir has explained that there’s a difference between Ismamists and Muslims. Islamists are the extremists, the terrorists. They don’t represent the Muslims in the nation.”

Bishop Chbeir has recounted to Father Murray a story of Muslim men serving at Masses in the diocese.

“Someone will point out that their Muslim, but they are very reverent,” Father Murray said. “They know they can’t receive Communion, so they cross their arms and bow their heads. Bishop Chbeir says their fine young men who have a lot of respect for the Christians.”

However, to help the refugees and the people of the Diocese of Latakia, it takes extensive resources, Father Murray noted.

“There are lots of different Eastern rites in Syria, and there may be six bishops in one city,” he said. “They all work together and cooperate. They firmly believe Christians have to maintain a presence in Syria and the Middle East. If not, who would proclaim the Gospel? While they can’t openly proselytize, they can proclaim the Gospel through their way of living and helping. Still, they’re working with limited resources.”

Providing resources is one of the ways our diocese supports the Diocese of Latakia, Father Murray said.

“We can help with financial support,” he said. “Unfortunately, we can’t send items. Bishop Chbeir is only able to leave the country and return freely because he is Lebanese and has a Lebanese passport, but he can’t bring items back with him from Lebanon into Syria.”

To donate, checks should be made out to the Diocese of Ogdensburg with “Solidarity in Faith” written in the memo section.

The faithful of our diocese can also help by praying for the Diocese of Latakia, Bishop Chbeir and the people of the diocese.

“They need our prayers,” Father Murray said. “We need to see ourselves as a universal church. If any part of the Body of Christ is suffering, we’re all suffering. Our brothers and sisters in Syria are suffering.”

Father Murray also noted that Bishop Chbeir, who visited our diocese in December 2017, plans to visit again to tour our diocese and discuss the plight of the Syrian people and Syrian Christians.

“Last time he was here, he said it was a very good trip for him,” Father Murray said. “He said, ‘people from here in northern New York are talking to me with tears in their eyes saying they’re praying for us.’ It was very heartening to him. He said, ‘I know I have support.’”

Father Murray said the partnership with Latakia has inspired him, as well.

“The Syrian people have faith in the face of adversity,” he said. “I think we, as Catholics, often take the practice of our faith for granted. They practice their faith in a very difficult situation. Their courage ought to be something we can emulate.”

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