Gravely damaged in war, Cathedral of St. Elijah in Aleppo rises from the ashes

THE MARONITE CATHEDRAL OF ST. ELIJAH in Aleppo, Syria reopened officially and was re-consecrated July 20, 2020, after years of reconstruction to repair major damage sustained during Syria’s civil war. Between 2012 and 2016, the cathedral suffered at least three extensive mortar attacks. The worst damage happened in 2013 when jihadist rebels attempted to destroy all signs of Christianity in the cathedral’s neighborhood. Aid to the Church in Need estimates that only 30,000 Christians remain in the city, compared to a pre-war population of 180,000. Aleppo was Syria’s most populous city before the war, but now is the second largest after the capital, Damascus. ACN, a major contributor to the restoration of the cathedral, spoke with Maronite Bishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo about the significance of the cathedral’s reconstruction and repair.

What was your feeling when you visited the cathedral for the first time after its destruction?
When Aleppo was liberated in 2016 and I went to inspect the church and saw the severe damage to the ceiling, the dome and the walls, I said to myself: “As we all suffered as human beings, so did the house of God and the house of the congregation. This house played a role in receiving the blows itself in order to protect the surrounding civilians.” I thanked the care of God who uses means for salvation that we may not understand. Nevertheless, when I saw the state of the church there were questions that had been going on in my mind since the beginning of the war: why this evil, this injustice, this humiliation, this ignorance?

Restored Cathedral of St. Elijah
Restored Cathedral of St. Elijah
St. Elijah prior to restoration

What was your message to Christians on Christmas 2016, when the cathedral had been reopened despite its damaged state?
In 2016, 12 days after the liberation of Aleppo, we decided to celebrate Christmas in the cathedral in its bad condition at the time. We decided to send a message of hope that the Son of God was incarnate and He is still with us, accompanying us in our sorrows and pains—and carrying them with us, so that they transform into a life of hope, faith, love, a life of holiness. The moment during Mass when the child Jesus was placed in the manger made of the ruins of the collapsed roof was very touching. We were crying and laughing at the same time, and everyone was clapping and cheering with joy.

What does official re-opening of the cathedral on 20 July mean for you?
The restoration and reopening of the cathedral has both a symbolic and a practical meaning. In the symbolic sense, it sends a message to the parishioners and Christians in Aleppo—and the world—that we are still in this country despite our dwindling numbers. The restoration of the cathedral is proof of this. Mouths must continue to praise God in this place despite all the difficulties. Our desire to stay is a “mission” and not just because we were born here, or because we are obliged to stay here against our will.

In the practical sense, we Maronites have no other place to bring us together than this cathedral, and the decision to restore it was self-evident, just like a family that wanted to renovate the only house that brought us together.

What is your message to ACN’s donors who helped make the reconstruction possible?
On behalf of all the parishioners and myself, we wholeheartedly thank Aid to the Church in Need, and all the donors who have contributed with faith and generosity to this dream. Without the help of ACN and the generosity of the donors, we would not have been able to pray again and spread hope in the hearts of the faithful through the reconstruction of the cathedral. Please rest assured that we pray daily for you and ask God to shower his blessings on you and your families.

Between 2011 and 2019 ACN International supported 900 projects within Syria to a total value of more than $43M. Currently ACN is still sponsoring more than 100 smaller and larger projects in the country. ACN contributed $460,000 to the restoration of St. Elijah.

—Maria Lozano