In an interview in Our Sunday Visitor, an official with the Catholic Near East Welfare Association said refugees from Syria into Lebanon are increasing “tremendously” because of the military conflict. Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria, told OSV about the “perilous situation in Syria and how the local and global Catholic Church is responding.”
OSV: What has life been like for local Christians in Syria?
Bishara: Christians or non-Christians, they are fleeing the shelling. The Christians would have an additional worry — they are not sure of the future. The experience of Christians in Iraq was horrible. If something similar happens to the Christians in Syria then they would be in a very difficult situation. Most of the Christians who fled Iraq went to Syria and Lebanon. The question is, what if the Christians in Syria were displaced? What we hear from them is that they worried about their future, about the form of the new regime and the new government — would there be a democratic regime, a fanatic Muslim regime? They’re not sure.
OSV: What is CNEWA doing to assist the refugees?
Bishara: We are assisting 2,000 families in the regions of Homs, the Christian Valley, Tartus and Damascus. We work through the infrastructure of the local church — the Greek Orthodox Church, which is the largest Christian community in Syria, and the Greek Catholics, the Melkites, and through the different sisters and the Jesuit fathers as well.
OSV: How has the Church responded?
Bishara: The Church has responded in a very good way. We are trying to utilize their social workers and priests and the sisters and try to raise funds and pass it through them. They are purchasing all of the commodities that we agree on and putting it in boxes and taking care of distribution. They are extremely accountable and very strict in terms of who gets what. We’re very happy with the way they are presenting their reports. We are in almost daily contact with them.
In an Aug. 2 report, the director of programs for International Orthodox Christian Charities affirmed this dire picture. “There is a palpable sense of urgency and people are worried about the growing violence throughout the country,” said Mark Ohanian. IOCC is working closely with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all The East and Syrian relief partner, Al Nada Association, in an effort to reach as many people as it can and to determine what the most immediate needs are for the growing number of displaced and vulnerable families.
“The situation remains unstable and we know that there are at least a million and a half people within the country who are in need of essential food and other assistance including those who have been displaced and others who have been trapped in their homes,” Ohnian said. “Despite the humanitarian efforts underway, hundreds of thousands of people require immediate food assistance in order to survive.”
Barnabas Aid reports today that “scores of people have been killed in Aleppo, which has been beset by intense fighting for nearly three weeks. The northern city is home to a sizeable Christian population, who are preparing for the worst amid escalating violence.”
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, the international director of Barnabas Aid, said that, “As Syria continues to be torn apart by civil war, it is heartening that the Christian community in Aleppo is bearing a united witness in its practical demonstration of the Lord’s care for His people. Let us pray that this display of solidarity will make an impact on the warring factions, and that there may yet be a peaceful solution to this dreadful conflict.”
The campaign “Aid for Ninevites” estimates that more than 4,000 Iraqi families that had previously fled violence in their country for the relative stability of Syria are now returning. But to what?
Recently, there has been a rise of terror attacks in Iraq. In a series of blasts, more than 100 lives were lost in just one day. Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) with links to AL-Qaeda has reported that they are re-organized and stronger than ever. Amidst all these explosions and uncertainty, the Iraqi Christians who had fled for their lives to Syria, once again are faced with forced migration. This time out of Syria, back to dangers of Iraq. There was a plea for help announced by the President of the Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq, Mr. Ashur Eskrya, informing us that 4000 to 5000 Christian families are expected to return to Iraq. These families need our financial help. They need food and shelter.
Donations may be offered at the specific links for these aid groups.