Members of the rebel Free Syrian Army are seen in Homs Feb. 29. The violence plaguing the country has forced the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) to put many of its projects there on hold. CNS photo/stringer via Reuters

CNEWA puts Syrian projects on hold

  • March 6, 2012

OTTAWA - The violence plaguing Syria has forced the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) to put many of its projects there on hold, even though Christians so far do not seem to have been specifically targeted.

But support for Iraqi Christians who fled to Iraq, many of whom struggle to survive in the slums of Damascus, is still ongoing, said CNEWA Canada national director Carl Hétu.

Meanwhile, CNEWA keeps a watchful eye on the plight of the indigenous Christians in Syria.

"It's too soon to tell what the impact will be on the Christian population," he said. "Right now there are thousands of people who are displaced. Among them are Christians, but that has been because of the conflict, not because of direct attacks on them."

Syria has been rocked by a rebel uprising trying to dislodge President Bashar al-Assad.

"Christians are stuck between a rock and a hard place," Hétu said. "They cannot show approval of the Assad government, but they have to be careful because they can't be seen to be supporting the rebels either."

Syrian Christians have been suffering in the violence but so have other religious groups, he said. There are concerns, however, that Syria could collapse into the kind of sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, Christians have been subjected to campaigns of violence and persecution, caught in the violent rivalry of extremist Sunni and Shiite groups.

Syria has a similar religious and ethnic make-up to that of Iraq and CNEWA is preparing for a possible massive influx of Syrian refugees to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan should the already tense situation grow worse.

"Our offices in Jordan and Beirut are expecting the worst if the country goes into wide civil war or the Assad government falls," said Hétu.

Four-and-a-half-million persons were displaced in Iraq by violence, two million within the country, and another 2.5 million, both Muslim and Christian, who fled the country. There are one million Iraqi refugees now living in Syria.

The Assad government is dominated by Alawites, a Shiite sect, and Syrian Christians, who comprise about 10 per cent of the population, negotiated friendly relations with the Alawites and obtained a measure of religious freedom to practise their faith without oppression, he said.

Though Syrian Christians are divided among Orthodox groups and Melkite Greek Catholics, Hétu said they are much more united than in other countries. In fact, CNEWA helped fund the construction of a church in a Damascus suburb that is shared by Melkite Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians, something he said is unprecedented in the Middle East.

Christians in Syria have been appealing for peace and for an end to the violence, trying to play their traditional peacemaking role, he said.

It is too early to tell whether the instability in Syria will follow the pattern in Egypt where the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak was followed by violent attacks on Coptic Christians who make up 10 per cent of Egypt's population, he said. The violence in Syria began as part of the Arab Spring, with civil groups taking part. The government began to repress this civil movement and some groups started to fight back, armed and financed by outside forces, Hétu said. These groups, however, are not united.

There are hopes that whether the rebels or the Assad government wins the conflict, that Christians will not be attacked.

"Christians are part of that society and will be, whatever comes out of the rebellion," Hétu said.

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