This report is contributed by Claire Creegan and John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need:
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One of Syria’s most senior Catholic leaders has issued an impassioned plea to young people, describing a “tsunami” of youth emigration—and begging them to stay.
Referring to “an almost communal wave of youth emigration,” Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III said the exodus is so severe it casts a shadow over the future of the Church in Syria.
In an open letter to youth, a copy of which was obtained by international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the Damascus-based prelate said emigration of Christian youth is especially severe in Syria, while adding that the phenomenon is also a grave concern elsewhere in the Middle East.
He wrote: “The almost communal wave of youth emigration, especially in Syria, but also in Lebanon and Iraq breaks my heart, wounding me deeply and dealing me a deadly blow.
“Given this tsunami of emigration… what future is left for the Church? What will become of our homeland? What will become of our parishes and institutions?”
Acknowledging the many problems of life in Syria today, the Patriarch said he nonetheless wanted to “implore” young people to remain. He stated: “Despite all your suffering, stay! Be patient! Don’t emigrate! Stay for the Church, your homeland, for Syria and its future! Stay! Do stay!”
Given the chaos in Syria, no precise figures are available as to the country’s current Christian population. According to conservative estimates, 450,000 of Syria’s pre-2011 Christian population of 1.17 million are either internally displaced or living as refugees abroad.
The Christian population has suffered especially badly as cities with a high concentration of faithful—including Aleppo and Homs – have seen some of the worst fighting in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011. Middle East analysts have warned that Syria might be experiencing a crisis similar to the one in Iraq, where Christian numbers have haemorrhaged from 1 million to fewer than 300,000 in the past 10 to 15 years.
Encouraging Syria’s Christian youth to persevere in their homeland, Patriarch Gregorios pointed to episodes in the past when the Church quickly recovered after outbreaks of persecution. He highlighted a revolution in Syria in 1860 that led to the killing of thousands of Christians and the destruction of many churches in Damascus’ Old City, saying:
“Our forebears underwent great difficulties, but they exercised patience and so the Church remained, Christianity remained and the number of Christians even grew after 1860.”
In February 2015, Aid to the Church in Need announced 22 new aid projects totalling nearly £1.7 million to help Christians in Syria rebuild their lives, prioritising help for places most affected by the war, including Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Projects supported by ACN will benefit the thousands of families who remain in Syria, providing food supplies, medicines, rent for housing, as well as heating and electricity.
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)