After eight years of war, the faithful in Damascus, Syria, are "so tired," said their new bishop, Syriac Catholic Archbishop John Jihad Battah. Nevertheless, he is returning to his birthplace with enthusiasm.
"I want to help the people, to give them hope to stay in their country," Archbishop Battah told Catholic News Service ahead of his episcopal ordination in Damascus July 28.
"In all my missions, in Italy, in Lebanon, I was obeying the call of the church. This is the first time I feel great joy and happiness in a new mission, to be going back to Syria," the 63-year-old archbishop said. He served in Lebanon for the last eight years as bishop for the patriarchal diocese of Beirut and previously in Rome for seven years.
"The most important thing is to take care of the people," Archbishop Battah said of his new mission. His motto as archbishop is Luke 22:27: "I am among you as the one who serves."
Damascus did not experience a mass exodus like in war-torn dioceses such as Aleppo. In the Syriac Catholic Archdiocese of Damascus, there are about 1,000 families, compared to about 1,200 families before the war, the archbishop said.
However, the sanctions against Syria are taking a toll on the Syrian people.
"It's leading people to leave the country to search for a better future," he stressed.
"The economic situation is very bad. Everyone is in need now," he said. The cost of basic necessities has skyrocketed, and medicine is very expensive. "People are dying from lack of medicine."
"We need prayers for the removal of sanctions. If the sanctions are removed, the people can at least live with dignity," Archbishop Battah said.
The government in Syria "is a positive government that respects all religions," Archbishop Battah noted.
He cited the Syriac Catholic youth gathering in Damascus in early July, when Syrian President Bashar Assad visited with the more than 200 young people for three hours, answering their questions in an open forum.
Archbishop Battah said his "main mission is to give Christians hope in the future, to stay in their country."
"My message to the West is to help the Christians in the Middle East to stay in their homelands. Their presence is vital," the archbishop said, noting that Christians are an "equilibrium, a bridge between all the religions."
"The Christians are the light of the world. The light should stay in the Middle East," Archbishop Battah said.