Can I go to Syria?
Sister Maria Nazareth is setting out on a difficult mission, but she has an unfailing faith in God.
"We must learn to come out of ourselves in order to meet others, in order to go toward the edges of our existence, to take the first steps towards our brothers and sisters, especially those who are farthest from us, those who are forgotten."
Sister Maria Nazareth takes this call, which Pope Francis addressed to the Church as a whole when he took up office, literally. The Argentinian Sister is preparing to go into the middle of chaos: to one of the hardest-fought cities of Syria.
"I'm going to Aleppo in the north of Syria. There I intend to reinforce my two fellow Sisters who assist the Roman Catholic Bishop of Aleppo. Furthermore I will be working in a student hostel for Christian girls."
Sister Maria Nazareth, who belongs to the Institute of the Incarnate Word founded in Argentina, radiates calm and joy as she talks to Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) about this new phase of her life. No, she says, I'm not afraid.
"I trust in God and the Virgin Mary. As members of a religious order we enjoy her special protection. In addition I am being accompanied by the prayers of so many people in my order. Our priests and Sisters pray in particular for the Middle East. We sense this."
She also asks the benefactors of ACN to think of her.
Personally, Sister Nazareth says, she prays that she may have the necessary strength to fulfil her mission at so difficult a place and may remain faithful to it. She has no illusions.
"Of course I know that there are dangers. Something can happen. Even the journey to Aleppo is not without hazard. You need twelve hours for the not so long road from Damascus to Aleppo on account of the large number of checkpoints. But something can befall you anywhere."
She is, of course, not being sent there against her will. On the contrary: "I asked my superiors whether I can go to Syria; they didn't ask me.”
“That's the usual way with us. Volunteers are sought for difficult missions. You are not sent by your superiors, but you yourself must ask for permission to undertake a difficult mission."
However, before Sister Nazareth could be assigned her new task in Syria she had to overcome another hurdle: she had to obtain her parents' consent.
"That is a condition in our community before you can be assigned to difficult places. The superiors do not want to decide against the wishes of the family. If relatives are afraid and worried or even completely opposed to the assignment that is not a good basis.”
“When I asked my superior whether I could go to Syria, he therefore instructed me to ask my parents. His view was that if they said no, I couldn't go. I therefore called my mother.”
“She said to me: You've been in a religious order for twenty years. Your decision is certainly not an easy matter for us. But we know that you are happy with it and that for you it's God's will. So we can't say no. We are praying for you and are with you."
Sister Maria Nazareth has already heard these words once before. For almost four years now she has been working in an area which one can also consider to be a difficult mission: the Gaza Strip, which is shut off by Israel and is governed by the Islamist organization Hamas.
Since 2010 she has served in the Roman Catholic parish of Gaza City, for which her order is responsible.
"I find it very difficult to leave this place. It was my first assignment in the Middle East. I've had a wonderful time there. I have developed a great affection for the people of Gaza.”
“From the very beginning they have accepted me like a member of the family. It hasn't been easy there, as you can imagine.”
“Christians experience a variety of difficulties in their everyday lives. But their faith has always been an example to me. This thought will now accompany me to Syria."
With picture of Sister Maria Nazareth (© ACN)