War drives Melkite priest to Edmonton

Fr. Issa Mammar

WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ

Fr. Issa Mammar

May 30, 2016
RAMON GONZALEZ
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

With rockets falling daily on the Syrian capital of Damascus, life for Father Issa Mammar and his family was becoming unbearable. The civil war, which started in 2011, was lasting too long.

The married Melkite Catholic priest and his wife Rima were worried about the safety of their children, Jean-Pierre, 13, and Anne Marie, 5.

Terrorists often target schools and civilian areas and Mammar felt his family was in danger. So he started planning to leave his war-torn country.

The opportunity came in late 2015 when the new Canadian government decided to bring in thousands of Syrian refugees. Sponsored by his brother-in-law, Mammar and his family arrived in Montreal Feb. 11.

There he met Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, the Melkite Catholic bishop of Canada, who asked Mammar to spend Holy Week in Edmonton helping Father Ephrem Marwa, the Calgary priest who was serving Melkite communities in both Calgary and Edmonton.

When the bishop asked Mammar if he would like to move to Edmonton with his family, he replied he would be happy to do so. So in April, Ibrahim appointed him the first permanent pastor of Edmonton's St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic Parish in 15 years.

The parish of about 50 families doesn't have its own church, so it celebrates the Divine Liturgy at Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church, 15608 104 Ave., on Saturdays at 4 p.m. Mammar said most of those currently attending are from Lebanon and Syria.

He is currently looking for Melkite families who still don't know that they now have a permanent pastor in Edmonton. One of his dreams is for the Melkites to have their own church but for now he is happy to be under the auspices of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy.

Bishop David Motiuk, the Ukrainian Catholic bishop of Edmonton, has embraced Mammar and his family, calling them "a gift from God" to the Melkite community of Alberta.

"Now the Melkite Greek Catholic community in Edmonton has a pastor of its own to shepherd its flock," Motiuk said recently. "This is a joyous event for this community."

The Melkite Greek Catholic Church is an Eastern Catholic Church in full communion with the Vatican. Like the Ukrainian Catholics, the Melkites follow the Byzantine rite. They trace their history to the early Christians of Antioch, where Christianity was introduced by St. Peter.

The current spiritual leader of the Melkites is Patriarch Gregorious III Laham, patriarch of Antioch and all the East. He is based in Damascus.

Speaking through an interpreter, parishioner Nadim Assi, Mammar, 43, said he began dreaming of the priesthood as a child.

Born June 15, 1972, Issa, "Jesus" in Arabic, was a middle child in a family of six children. His family attended the Divine Liturgy every Sunday.

With encouragement from his parents, Issa began serving at the altar at an early age. He admired the priests and felt close to the Church. By the time he received his First Communion at age nine, he already knew he had a special relationship with the Lord.

After completing high school, Mammar spent six years in Harissa, Lebanon, studying philosophy and theology in preparation for the priesthood. He decided to be a married priest and so he got married to Rima in 2000, prior to being ordained.

He served in Damascus as an evangelical deacon until his priestly ordination on April 16, 2004. For five years he served as pastor of Sydnaya, a large parish in Damascus. In 2010, he was transferred to Damascus' oldest parish, St. George's, located in the middle of a Muslim area. He served there until his departure to Canada.

CHILDREN SCARRED

Mammar said he was prepared to wait out the civil war but it lasted too long with no end in sight. He speaks of frequent school bombings and of his children being emotionally and psychologically scarred "because they continually hear the bombing."

"There is danger all over the country and in particular in Damascus," he said. "It was not safe for the kids to go to school and go around because of the random bombing of the terrorists."

Most Christians have suffered greatly through the war, especially those in the old Christian town of Maaloula and in Aleppo, Mammar said. "When the terrorists attacked Maaloula, a very old town where people still speak the language of Jesus, they put the houses on fire and killed a lot of the citizens," he recalled.

CHRISTIANS FLEEING

"Now the biggest struggle for the Christians is in Aleppo, in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border. Lots of Christians have run away from that big city because of the war and the terrorists." Mammar said many Christians with Armenian roots have fled to Armenia; others have sought refuge in Europe and Canada.

In the meantime, the Mammars are enjoying their new-found peace in Edmonton. The children are both attending school and Mammar will start taking English lessons in June.

Melkite Catholics who wants to enroll at St. Nicholas Melkite Greek Catholic Parish can contact Father Issa Mammar at 514-402-3443 or Rita Maalouf at 780-710-7412.