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The murder of Aleppo’s innocents

16 December 2016

The death and despair in Syria troubles Paul Vallely as he prepares for Christmas

IT IS hard to make space in your brain simultan­eously to accommodate both Christmas and the death throes of Aleppo. To be preparing for a time of festivity and family, when others are on the precipice of death and despair, sets up a kind of mental disson­ance.

And yet we are used to the idea of ambiguity in Advent. It is a time of preparation, but many of the season’s readings have an apocalyptic feel. They yoke readying ourselves for the joy of in­­carnation with musing on the Four Last Things — death, judgement, heaven, and hell.

The last of these is a grisly metaphor for life to­­day in the rebel-held areas of what was once the largest city in Syria. People there have been using social media to tweet their last will and testament, or to make a final desperate plea for assistance that, as the rest of the world knows, is not forthcoming.

Executions are reported on the streets — not just of rebel fighters, but also of their wives and chil­dren. Families trying to flee are restrained by rebels; those who do escape find their men separ­ated off by government militias for torture or death. How can we turn away from this to the cosiness of the Dickensian Christmas?

The real Christmas has always had a dark side. The Church marks this with the postscript of the commemoration of the Holy Innocents, three days after we celebrate the wonder of God’s be­­coming human.

It is a day that has been elided in the contem­porary calendar, slipping into the secular an­­onymity of the undistinguished days bet­ween Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. That is a far cry from medieval times, when children were re­­minded of the mournfulness of Child­ermas by being whipped in bed in the morning.

Aleppo replaces the symbolic with the grue­somely real. It also inverts the chronology, so that the Holy Innocents come this year before Christ­mas. Pope Francis, on Monday, sent a personal letter to President Bashar al-Assad, appealing to him “to ensure that international humanitarian law is fully respected with regard to the protec­tion of the civilians”. Events on the ground sug­gest that the papal intervention may parallel that of the Wise Men, whose actions merely pro­voked Herod to anger.

Herod’s murder of the innocent is the clearest demonstration that cruelty derives from hatred, which in turn proceeds from fear. What else can explain the slaughter of the final few doctors who have remained in the rebel area in a brave demonstration of greater love in the face of horror?

The people of Aleppo have done us this grim favour: they remind us not to look at Christmas through the lens of sentimentality, but to see that love, faith, family, and life is something to treas­ure and give thanks for. But the child in the cradle is born to be the man on the cross. A voice is heard in Ramah, of wailing and great lamentation: Rachel weeping for her children and re­­fusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

The question is: what favour will we do for the people of Aleppo?


Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics and Media at the University of Chester.

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