In the church of St. Anthony, in Istanbul, the Nativity scene contains the clothes of the Syrian children who drowned while trying to reach Europe.
Boots, muddy shorts, backpack, a stuffed doll and life jackets: the Istanbulians that come as usual to the courtyard of St. Anthony’s church to see the manager prepared by the Franciscan friars, this year, found a Holy Family dressed in an unusual way. Pious hands that have dealt with the Syrian children who drowned in the Aegean waters while attempting to reach Greece from Turkey – for all the goal is Europe, as the willingness to welcome them proves grim – they have sent some of the children’s clothing to Istanbul.
And the Conventual Friars decided that, if not in Europe, then the children have earned at least the right to come in the manager and keep Jesus company with the memory of their little lives. “You cannot ignore the tragedy that is unfolding so near to us, said Friar Guardian Iulian Pista. – Otherwise the manager of sacred representation becomes an idyllic theater. The sacredness must be found in people’s everyday life.”
According to data released by UNICEF in early December, at least 185 children have died in shipwrecks in the Aegean Sea, along the route between Turkey and Greece, in 2015 (about 700 in the Mediterranean). The first to grab our attention was the little Aylan, Kurdish – Syrian, 3 year old who drowned in early September with his mother and little brother, age of 5 years old. The image of his body in pieces on the beach has made it around the world and has shaken everyone’s conscience. At least for awhile…
The latest is Sajida, 5 years old and also Syrian, who was found on Pirlanta beach in Cesme. It was just a few hours before that the occupants of a boat sunk off the coast of Bodrum, only four were rescued from the Turkish coast guard while eight others died; amongst them five children. In the streets around the church of St. Anthony, halfway between the Galata Tower and Taksim Square, in the historic Pera district, it is easy to come across children of refugee families from Syria or Iraq. On Tuesday afternoons, their mothers come to take the bread for the poor at St. Anthony, a Franciscan tradition that has experienced new and more urgent requests with the arrival in the city of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Thanks to the generosity received by those that attend the church, Muslims for the vast majority, because in Turkey Christians of various confessions represent only 0.15% of the population. In the days before Christmas the church, festively decorated with Christmas lights and decorations that have all the flavor of the Polish and Romanian traditions of the Friars of the community, is open to the continuous flow of thousands of visitors. “And it’s our reality and something that should recall our attention,” commented by most viewing the manager that shines with lights under the benevolent gaze of the statue of John XXIII.
Our Lady of the Nativity of St. Anthony has a life jacket with the number 26. If instead of fleeing to Egypt on the back of a donkey in the days of Herod, she had found herself having to seek salvation by sea now, it would have probably also worn her out. “After all – commented Friar Iulian – baby Jesus was also a refugee.”
“Many children are able to arrive – said Pope Francis to the children of Catholic Boys Action that he met on his birthday, December 17th. He told them about the charity initiative chosen this year in support of migrants arriving in the territory of the diocese of Agrigento – some not … All that you do for these people is good: thank you for doing it!”