Pope Benedict XVI’s mid-September visit to Lebanon reminded Christians in the turbulent Middle East that the Church has not forgotten them or the challenges they face.
“I am not unaware of the often dramatic situation endured by the populations of this region, which has been torn for too long by incessant conflict,” Benedict said the week before the visit during his weekly Sunday address.
Nowhere in the region are people suffering more right now than in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been fighting rebel forces since April 2011, at the cost of thousands of lives.
While in Lebanon, the Pope referred twice to the strife in Syria, which threatens to spill over into the neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Israel, which captured the Golan Heights from Syria, is on high alert as well. “You know all too well the tragedy of the conflicts and the violence which generates so much suffering,” the Pope said Sept. 16 following an open-air Sunday Mass in Beirut attended by more than 350,000 people. He lamented that in Syria “the din of weapons” is now heard alongside “the cry of the widow and the orphan.”
The war has created an enormous refugee crisis, according to the United Nations, which places the number of those who have left Syria at roughly 250,000 people. Although most have sought shelter in refugee camps or private homes in neighboring countries, some have traveled as far as Switzerland.
Hundreds of thousands more have been displaced internally, according to a report from Refugees International.
“Many are fleeing to other villages or leaving the country, especially from Homs,” said Bashir Bitar, a trustee of the U.S.-based Syrian Christians for Democracy, referring to a region that has seen especially fierce battles.
Bitar, a Catholic from the Syrian city of Aleppo, who immigrated to the U.S. many years ago, said the reports his organization receives daily from people on the ground are cause for great alarm.
“No one can go outside to buy bread, if there is any, and Christians don’t dare go to church due to the bombardment. A Christian friend in Aleppo said the regime is trying to arm the community. Some members are loyal to the regime, and some are not. We’ve been trying to urge Christians not to get in the middle.”
Prior to the civil war, many of Syria’s Christians supported the regimes of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, who are Alawites, a minority community that practices a mystical form of Shiah Islam. Over the decades of their rule, the Assads have been relatively tolerant of Christians and other minorities, but ruthless against their opponents.
Much of that Christian support has evaporated, Lebanon’s Maronite Catholic Patriarch, Bishop Beshara Rai, told Agence France-Presse prior to the Pope’s visit to Lebanon.
“I tell Westerners who say that we [Christians] are with the Syrian regime that we are not with regimes; we are with the state. There is a big difference. In Iraq, when Saddam Hussein was removed, we lost a million Christians. Why? Not because the regime fell, but because there was no more authority; there was a vacuum,” Bishop Rai noted.
“In Syria, it’s the same thing: Christians do not back the regime, but they are afraid of what may come next. That is their feeling,” the patriarch said.
Christians fear that if the Assad regime falls, Islamic fundamentalists and others eager to overthrow the government will attack the Christian community.
“Unfortunately, they have sometimes suffered attacks, such as in Egypt and in Iraq,” the patriarch said of Middle East Christians. “In Syria, Christians have suffered the same fate as others, and when Homs [in central Syria] and Aleppo [in the north] were bombed, they fled.
“Who has attacked the Christians? No moderate Muslims, who are the majority, but, rather, the fundamentalists, who treat them as infidels.”
Helping the Refugees
Issam Bishara, director of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine’s Lebanese office (PMP), told the Register that Lebanese governmental and aid organizations are trying to keep up with the influx of refugees, both Christian and Muslim.
“We already have a few hundred Christian families from Syria all over Lebanon who are being housed by relatives and friends,” he noted. “A few families are being housed in a monastery, while others are in refugee camps.”
About 10% of the refugees are Christian, Bishara said, and, like their Muslim compatriots, they left their homes due to the fighting. Overall, Christians comprise about one-10th of Syria’s population.
“Some are emotionally very disturbed and have undergone a great shock,” Bishara said, “but when it comes to their faith, I think the experience has brought them closer to God. They are seeking shelter in the Church and in adoration.”
Emotional support is equally important, noted Bishara.
“We need to work with them on the healing process, to help the refugees emerge from the shock they’ve sustained, especially those who have lost everything, homes and loved ones.”
One Christian refugee Bishara encountered in Lebanon became a widow after her husband was kidnapped, tortured and murdered back home in Syria.
“His body was thrown on his father’s doorstep. I’ve heard even worse stories pertaining Muslim families.”
Bishara said aid workers have been scrambling to account for the refugees who have entered Lebanon because the government, unlike the government of Jordan — which has absorbed tens of thousands more Syrian refugees — has no central database for this purpose.
Bishara urged Christians around the world first of all to pray for peace and security in the Middle East and to contribute what they can either to PMP or Catholic Relief Services, PMP’s strategic partner in the region, to provide homeless Syrians with food, clothing, shelter and psychological support.
As Bishara said, “Until they can return home.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent. She writes from Jerusalem.