Since April, there has been nothing but bad news for Syrian Christians, who most recently saw the city of Idlib fall to ISIS. Today even Aleppo is threatened.
“The morale of the people is completely shattered,” said Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East section of the Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need, upon returning from Syria.
Fear, but also hope can be used to describe the tone of the Christian community in Syria at the moment, he added. “I had already visited the project sites of our partners in January. During my most recent visit, however, I noticed a marked change in mood. Bad news has been piling up since then. The most recent conquests of the rebels in Idlib and other places are especially depressing for Aleppo’s Christians. They are afraid and believe that their city is about to experience even more violence. After all, Aleppo’s Christian district already weathered severe rebel attacks in April. The morale of the people is completely shattered.”
Father Halemba spent several days at the end of May visiting project sites in various places in Syria. “Added to this is the fact that Lebanon practically closed off its borders to Syrian refugees at the beginning of the year. This has hit Christians especially hard because they have a difficult time of it in other countries in the region. Lebanon was their safe haven of choice. They now feel trapped.”
However, Father Halemba said that he also met Christians in other regions who were filled with hope. “In Maaloula, but also in Yabroud or Homs, there is a real drive to rebuild. The people are returning to places that have been freed by the Syrian government and are rebuilding the homes and churches that were destroyed. Schools, such as the Melkite school in Yabroud, are being reopened. Despite all the years of war there is still so much energy and potential. This even strengthened and encouraged me in my work. We from Aid to the Church in Need have to support these Christians, especially in the restoration of their churches. These renovated houses of worship are like beacons of light. They give the people hope and convey a feeling of normality.”
Father Halemba then talked about how Aid to the Church in Need also supports pastoral projects such as catechism instruction for children and adolescents. “We Catholics have to know our faith. This gives us strength, even when times are hard.”
Father Halemba emphasised that the majority of the aid provided by Aid to the Church in Need is being used for emergency relief. “We have donated aid amounting to about two million euros since the beginning of this year. Decisive for us is helping the Christians so that they can remain in Syria. The affluent have already left. What remains are the poor. They earn no or only low wages. Prices, however, are high. This makes the people dependent on support from the church.”
He went on to describe how Aid to the Church in Need supports those affected by helping to pay for rent, food and hygiene items through local church partners. “The priests go the people and not the other way around. I was able to observe this in Marmarita. Many of Aleppo’s Christians have found refuge in this Christian town. It is full to bursting. Rents have skyrocketed. Unfortunately, the distress of the refugees is often exploited.”
All in all, Syria is facing enormous problems, Father Halemba said. “Four million people have already left Syria. Fifteen thousand doctors alone have left. Half of the schools are closed. Things are especially hard for the seriously ill. It has been estimated that more people have died in this war from a lack of health care than through fighting. Some church people say that this has been the cause of more than 350,000 deaths. Compare that with the 220,000 victims of the war. However, the worst thing for me was to hear that more children than women have been killed in the conflict. This is often done deliberately to take the last hope away from the parents. This shows just how demonic this conflict really is.”
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN) www.acnmalta.org (Malta)