Damascus, Syria, Nov 18, 2016 / 12:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Fr. Alejandro León is a Salesian missionary who has lived more than 13 years in the Middle East, and in Syria since 2011 – precisely when its civil war began. He has said that being there during the war is “ a sign of mercy and the love of God,” even though it involves risking his own life and often being close to death.
The priest, born in Venezuela in 1979, said he has witnessed several miracles, because he works with young people who can put aside revenge and foster a love for reconciliation, which has led them to care for the relatives of Muslim extremists.
“Taking that step has been hard, but it has been very freeing for them” and “they have realized that those women and children are not culpable, and in the end, they are also our brothers and sisters,” he told CNA.
He knew when he joined the Salesians that he wanted to “offer to the young people the education and generosity that he had received.” So in 2003, when he was 24, he offered to go “wherever was the greatest need,” and his superiors indicated the Middle East.
After studying in Egypt and Italy, Fr. León, who was recently ordained a priest, was sent to Syria. “The war was beginning and I accepted,” he said.
Agreeing to go to a country at war scared him, he said, but he recalled that once he was there he realized something fundamental: “I had a very happy life thanks to my family and the Salesians and it really grieves me that there were so many children that could not have the same opportunity.”
“The risk is worth it, and if this turns out badly and something happens to me, I believe I have lived long enough to have found the meaning of life and this is to know I am deeply loved by God.”
“Even though as Salesians we have promised obedience to our superiors, they have given us a lot of freedom so that just those who want to stay in Syria are there. I believe than each one of us, of the seven who are in the three communities, have experienced powerful moments of abandonment, of decisively surrendering ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord, telling him that no matter what happens, I’m in his hands for as long as he wants,” the missionary reflected.
The three Salesian communities in Syria are located in Aleppo, Damascus, and Kafroun (35 miles northwest of Homs).
Their homes are known in Syria as an “oasis of peace” because they seek to unite under the Gospel and with Christ all the Christians in the area.
Fr. León said that in Syria, “there are times when we need to care of the sick, the dying, or burials, and you know that on the way missiles and bombs are falling, but it’s in these situations in which you decide you’re going to go all the way or just halfway. Because if we stay in Syria it’s not to take care of the buildings but to serve and be a sign of mercy and the love of God in the midst of the people, and that involves risking our lives.”
“We risk our lives sometimes, even though we try to be as prudent as possible. But what can’t happen is that in order to protect ourselves we only go halfway with our service: we’re staying in Syria to serve, and we decided that as long as there are Christians who need us, we’ll be there in Syria with them.”
This sense of fidelity and service to the Christians is based, Fr. León explained, “on the sense of family, which is so important for Salesians.”
In his work with the young people as director and general coordinator for the activities the Salesians undertake in Syria, Fr. León noted that the biggest challenge is to form them so they are prepared to rebuild their country once the war is over.
“There will be companies and countries ready to rebuild the walls in the cities, but what will be needed are persons, young people, very prepared to rebuild the hearts, souls and the spirit of that society … this will be the main mission of the Syrian youth.”
Another difficulty is “the cultural idea of vengeance which is very ingrained,” which does not arise out of hatred but out of “love for that loved one who has died and who must be avenged because of that love.”
“In Syria everyone has someone to avenge” the priest lamented, adding that his work is also to seek to promote reconciliation and not vengeance.
“Our Syrian young people are going to refugee centers where there are, in addition to many abandoned people, women and children of the Muslim extremists who are taking part in the attacks,” he explained.
“You would have to put yourselves in the shoes of those guys and think about what they have overcome to be able to help and take care of, for example, the son of someone who ordered the bombing that killed my cousin or my brother.”
“Taking that step, for a lot of them has been hard, but it also has been very freeing. They have realized that in the end the children of those extremists are not culpable and in the end they are also our brothers and sisters.”
He said that the war and “the mystery of suffering” has made a lot of young adolescents with whom the Salesian work in Syria to have serious doubts about their faith.
“The problem of evil has created a crisis of faith, but with our witness and being close to them, many young people have overcome this and afterwards have been able to have a much more authentic experience of Christ.”
In fact, this country “is among those that have given the most vocations to the Salesian family, even before the war. Also those who during the war have overcome their doubts, have come into a deep spiritual life which makes them ask themselves what God wants from them. And that is something beautiful.”