DAMASCUS, Syria — The Syrian civil war, which has now begun its third year, has “totally destroyed” a quarter of the country with local Christians particularly hard hit by the fighting, says a missionary priest.
“Christians are suffering so much. ‘Please don’t forget us’ is a very clear message,” Father Andrzej Halemba, a Polish diocesan priest who is Aid to the Church in Need’s projects coordinator for the Middle East, told EWTN News.
The Syrian conflict marked its second anniversary last week. On March 15, 2011, demonstrations sprang up nationwide, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president and leader the country’s Ba’ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters. Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war.
United Nation’s estimates show that 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict. More than 1 million refugees have flooded into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Iraq. Inside Syria another estimated 2.5 million are internally displaced.
“It’s an incredible tragedy of the nation, and especially of Christians,” said Father Halemba, who has been to Lebanon to help refugees who have fled Syria.
The priest said that Christians in Syria live in places “where the violence is strongest,” and so “they suffer most.” Many live in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, all of which are cities strongly contested for by the government and the rebels.
“They have to run away. They suffer from fighting and they can’t come back.”
Father Halemba recounted that recently fighting had died down in Homs and so several families returned, but they found their homes empty, “completely robbed; there is nothing there but their houses.”
Aid to the Church in Need is doing what it can for refugees in Lebanon “just to help them survive,” said Father Halemba. In the severe winter, most were able to bring only a suitcase full of belongings. Both housing and the fuel to heat it has become very expensive in Lebanon.
“The Christians who left Syria...they have peace, but they have no means of surviving in Lebanon.”
The number of refugees in Lebanon has swelled the country’s population by 8% in the past two years. There are not enough jobs to support them all, and so “they have no future in Lebanon.”
Father Halemba fears that the violence in Syria will spread to neighboring countries and that “Syria could be like Somalia.”
“If they remove Assad by force, by invasion, we will have trouble in Syria for years to come. There will be no peace, and this will spill over to Lebanon and Jordan.”
For Lebanon this would be “a terrible disaster,” he said, as the country already “suffered so much” during its own civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
Father Halemba said that Aid to the Church in Need is helping refugees through Lebanese dioceses and Caritas. The aid organization helps those who have remained in Syria to buy bread, medicine and fuel, and works with the Jesuits to feed and school children who have fled to the Valley of Christians.
The war is leading to “not only violence in society, but in the families,” Father Halemba cautioned. There is violence between spouses, and more and more Christian and Muslim couples are seeking divorce.
“There are a lot of problems on this level as well.”
Aid to the Church in Need is concerned that the situation of Christians in Syria is not unlike their situation throughout the Middle East.
Edward Clancy, the charity’s director of evangelization and outreach, said that Benedict XVI urged that one of the group’s two main focuses be the maintenance of a Christian presence in the region.
“One of the things universal in my travels in Islamic world, is that the Christian influence is always the influence for peace,” he said to EWTN News.
He recounted that an Iraqi bishop told him at World Youth Day in Madrid that while he was glad his youth could see millions of young people alive in their faith, he feared they might not return to Iraq, and that the region will become a “Christian wasteland” which is “barren of any Christian presence.”
In the ten years since the invasion of Iraq, the country’s Christian population has plummeted from 1.5 million to at most 300,000.
“I’ve always likened Christian presence, in any of these communities,” Clancy said, “to the mortar that holds bricks together. Because even though they’re not the predominance of the population, they act as both the cohesive and stabilizing force of the society.”
Syrian Christians “always were balancing the tensions” in the nation, said Father Halemba. “They were very much appreciated” and could get along with each of the Muslim sects there. “They gave so much to the country.”
The pressure put on Christians throughout the Middle East, Father Halemba said, is “incredible,” even though “the Christians are bridges” among Muslim groups.
Christian refugees need not only material, but spiritual support, Father Halemba noted.
“In such a crisis, it’s not only food that’s important. The trauma they go through, they ask ‘why are we punished by God?’”
“They question their own faith, and so we have to take care of the spiritual life as well.”
This, he said, is why Aid to the Church in Need has “chaplains and Sisters who go and counsel them. They give them food, but give them also spiritual support, which is extremely important in this case.”