Crux Staff — With just under two weeks to go until World Youth Day celebrations begin in Lisbon, Portugal, young people from every corner of the globe are making final preparations ahead of their departure.
Others, however, are staying home—not by choice, but sad necessity.
For young people in Syria, where civil strife began in 2011 and ravaged the country for more than a decade, with occasional flare-ups still taking place, travel to Europe is almost impossible these days.
Thanks to Aid to the Church in Need, however, a special gathering at Saidnaya, an ancient Marian pilgrimage site in Syria, during World Youth Day festivities from August 1-6.
Xavier Bisits is responsible for ACN projects in Syria and Lebanon and describes Saidnaya as “one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in Syria, for more than 1,500 years.” The Saidnaya site is also home to a monastery and was the target of jihadist attacks during the civil war.
“[T]hat this event is able to take place at all is a small miracle,” Bisits said. “In fact, it will be the first national event of its scale for Syrian young people in history.”
The event will have an ecumenical dimension, with young Orthodox believers invited to participate, as well. [Y]oung Orthodox will be very welcome,” Bisits said, “and we expect the attendees to come from a mix of backgrounds.”
The Saidnaya event envisions the participation of Christians from each of Syria’s administrative jurisdictions, called governatorates, and will take place between August 2-5. Events in Lisbon will be broadcast via video link to Syrian participants in the Saidnaya gathering.
“The majority of Syrians could only ever dream of being able to travel to attend an event like WYD,” Bisits said. “It would be impossible to acquire visas for most Syrian young people, nor could they afford to pay the costs or flight ticket, given the collapse of the local currency.”
Lebanese youth are also feeling the sting of protracted political turmoil and economic stagnation in their country, but more than a thousand young people are expected to gather on Mount Lebanon to mark World Youth Day close to home, thanks also to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).
“Young Lebanese Catholics are enduring poverty, unemployment, and suffering from the collapse of their country’s political system,” Bisits said—a situation young people find impossible to negotiate. “Today,” Bisits said, “most young Catholics graduating from university immediately leave the country.”
“Our goal in this project is not only to unite the different Catholic rites—Maronite, Melkite, Syriac, Armenian, Chaldean and Latin—but also to encourage young people as they make difficult decisions and figure out their future in a country that is falling apart,” Bisits also said.
“This event symbolizes optimism, continuity and joy,” said Roy Jreich of the Youth Department of the Assembly of Catholic Bishops and Patriarchs of Lebanon, “along with unforgettable experiences which will allow the young people to continue the Church’s mission and develop in different ways.”
Pope Francis sent his own message to young people in Syria and Lebanon, calling on them to remember that “the whole Church is close to them, praying with them and for them, and loving them with their hope, their courage and their solidarity.”
“Jesus is beside [you],” Pope Francis told the young people, saying that it will be the youth who “will revive their churches,” and rebuild their countries.