Members of the Syrian army, talking to a Franciscan priest from the Franciscan convent in the Syrian port city of Lattakia outside collapsed homes after the earthquake. Photo courtesy Aid to the Church in Need

Quake worsens wide array of Syrian problems

  • April 7, 2023

Already decimated by years of war, poverty and international sanctions, the last thing people in northwestern Syria needed was the catastrophic 7.8 magnitude that wreaked havoc in their country and southeastern Turkey nearly two months ago.

Among the hardest hit are once-thriving Christian communities, already greatly reduced by the Islamic State campaign against them. 

Most have nowhere to go for relief except churches and charities such as Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). 

“Their situation is precarious,” said Mario Bard, head of information at ACN’s Montreal office. “The figures speak for themselves: from two million before the war began in 2011, Christians now make up less than two per cent (under 500,000 people) of the population of more than 21 million.”

ACN continues to support Christians who remain in Syria, and churches in Syria, with financial help from ACN, are moving forward to repair 250 homes that were damaged and left unsafe by the earthquake.

Bard said ACN has committed to providing more than $700,000 in aid to help Christians return to their apartments and houses that were damaged in the earthquake, and to support families with rent for temporary accommodation in the meantime.

“The Church is often the only source of help for Christians who say they are not helped by the UN or other international NGOs,” Xavier Bisits explained. 

Bisits, who is responsible for ACN’s projects in Syria, cautioned that this was not necessarily deliberate discrimination.

“Christians don’t normally fall within the criteria set by Western governments for foreign aid,” he told The Catholic Register

The tragedy of the earthquake is played out in so many heartbreaking ways, said Bisits.

“Many parents now say their children are afraid to sleep with a roof over their head. This is worse for those who have lost someone in the earthquake. At the funeral of (Fr. Imad Daher) who died in the earthquake, I saw many children crying. He had been the chaplain of their school.” 

Daher is mourned by his many friends not only in Syria, but also in Montreal, to which he had close ties. He had visited the city several times, and according to his childhood friend Sr. Jacky Abinassif of Montreal, was greatly loved by the youth of her church.

“We are also beginning to work with the Church in identifying key pastoral buildings that need repair to enable them to continue their service,” Bisits said. “For example, we are talking to some Catholic religious Sisters about repairing their school in Aleppo.”

Bisits emphasized that Christianity is part of Syria’s ancient heritage, and not an import from the West, and that it is critically important to stop the exodus of Christians to foreign lands which began well before the earthquake.

“The presence of the Catholic Church goes back to St. Paul’s conversion in Damascus, about 100 metres from where I rent a room in the old city of Damascus,” he said. “If we lose Eastern Christians, we lose not just an ancient treasure of the faith but one of the liveliest Christian communities in the world.”

He pointed out that the engagement of Christians with their faith is impressive, perhaps only rivalled by some parts of sub-Saharan Africa today. 

“Almost all young Christians are engaged in their church in some way, teaching, volunteering for the poor, singing in their choir. The Church is not perfect, but in many ways, it offers an authentic vision of Christian living, a testimony and inspiration to those of us in the West.”

Bisits, an Australian, draws inspiration from ACN’s mission.

“I am inspired by this mission which sets us apart from other foundations,” he said. “Through the generosity of our benefactors we often fund projects that would otherwise be neglected. For example, the training of young people, support for seminarians or emergency aid that takes into consideration the particular needs of religious minorities.”

There are many challenges funding and delivering humanitarian aid, particularly obstacles created by international sanctions, he said. The primary effect of sanctions is they punish ordinary people, while rewarding corrupt owners of large companies that benefit from a lack of foreign competition, ending in the classic scenario of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer.

“Pope Francis has called for the sanctions against Syria to be relaxed, since these are aggravating human conditions in the country and are not having their desired effect,” he said.

While some sanctions have been temporarily suspended by the EU and U.S. to facilitate humanitarian aid, this is not addressing the root cause of poverty.

“The root cause is not just war and displacement. The economy is broken. Syria can’t trade with the outside world because of the sanctions,” he said, adding that the post-war reconstruction phase cannot proceed because they don’t have the fuels of materials for rebuilding.

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