Current Issue
September, 2019
Volume 45, Number 3
17 October 2019
John E. Kozar

Displaced Syrian families, who fled violence after the Turkish offensive against Syria, sit in a bus on their way to camps in Iraq. (photo: CNS/Ari Jalal, Reuters)

Like so many around the world, we are watching what is unfolding in Syria with concern and prayer. I am reaching out at this moment to let you know we are in close contact with our partners in the region and getting regular updates from the local churches.

Mercifully, our partners on the ground remain reasonably safe and the activities of the churches we support continue to serve those in need. Be assured: We at CNEWA stand with our suffering brothers and sisters during this crisis —and stand ready, as well, to help in whatever way we can.

The headlines hour by hour tell of a country in turmoil, of a fluid theater, as Turkish troops move in from the north. Reports tell of thousands of people fleeing, seeking safety wherever they can. Some of those in harm’s way are Christians. They cannot be forgotten.

Last Sunday during the Angelus, Pope Francis focused the prayers of the world on “beloved and tormented Syria.” He noted that the many innocent people “forced to abandon their homes due to military actions” were “also many Christian families.” The Holy Father called for dialogue and urged the international community to work for effective solutions to the crisis.

I can only echo his plea for peace.

I invite you to join the Holy Father and all of us at CNEWA in praying for the men, women and children of Syria who are facing this moment with uncertainty, but with unwavering faith. I’ve been humbled and uplifted by so many I’ve met from this troubled corner of the world, who have held fast to the faith of their ancestors with courage and hope. They have never forgotten the consoling words of Scripture that remind us: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end.” (Lamentations 3:22).

On behalf of all those we are privileged to serve, thank you for your prayers and continued support.

Tags: Syria CNEWA

28 March 2019
Michel Constantin

On the road outside Rableh, Syria, visitors see the extent of the damage from years of war.
(photo: CNEWA)

We received the following report a few days ago from our regional director in Beirut, Lebanon, Michel Constantin:

To better assess and evaluate the current situation in Syria — now that the regime’s forces have regained control of more than 75 percent of the country and secured the major cities and rural areas — CNEWA-Pontifical Mission visited our partners so as to touch base with the beneficiaries of our aid and the volunteers who are work on behalf of the church.

Our plan was to visit three areas: the capital of Damascus; the central city of Homs and Tartus on the coast; and finally, Aleppo, where we were asked to participate in a special synod of the churches organized locally to discuss the challenges facing the Christian community there, once the largest Christian community in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, the visit to Aleppo was canceled for security reasons. On the same day we were scheduled to travel there, heavy shelling targeted downtown Aleppo. Nevertheless, we were able to follow the work of the meetings and we were updated on the findings and recommendations.

What follows are our impressions and findings:

Military attacks continue to decrease, especially since the areas under the opposition or the extremists are now very restricted to one area in the northwest of the country (Edlib and the surrounding area, controlled by the extremist militia of Al Nusra) and the northeast (east of the Euphrates River under the Kurdish militias supported mainly by the United States). However, this stability should not be confused with long-term peace, which some question as doubtful. Some observers fear fragmentation and the ethnic cleansing of areas that fall either to government or Kurdish control. This could spin out of control, for example, should both parties face each other in battle around Deir Ezzor. This is particularly dangerous, as each side is backed by different outside powers.

The territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean it will cease to exist. Rather, it is likely to adapt its strategy, continue underground, and use more guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The problem in Syria is not just ISIS, but the lack of inclusive governance and equal opportunities in the country. These are the root causes that enabled ISIS to grow. The organization is not a cause but a consequence of the underlying political situation. As a result, the defeat of ISIS will not lead to the end of the conflict in Syria. If the root causes are not addressed, the conflict is likely to continue. In addition, new conflicts and new extremist groups might arise.

On the other hand, in the aftermath of the war and with the absence of a clear and united opposition, any political process without a clear strategy carries risks. A power vacuum — or political, ethnic or sectarian tensions — could become a source of renewed conflict, which may lead to the further destabilization of the region.

Socially and economically, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria — and the resulting rupture of socioeconomic ties inflicted on the nation’s economy — has seriously damaged the infrastructure. It has reversed or significantly slowed not only the development of Syria itself, but also of its neighbors — first of all Lebanon and Jordan — as well as Turkey. This has exacerbated the situation in these states and has created new risks.

The streets of Homs are showing signs of life. (photo: CNEWA)

Conditions need to be created for the return of refugees and the restoration of life-support systems. These can bring not only humanitarian or economic dividends, but also political and strategic ones. But despite the improvement of the security situation in many areas, international experience shows that the absence of fighting is rarely the trigger for return of the displaced people. Numerous other factors are involved. These include:

Loss of human capital. The number of people lost to injury, death or emigration is staggering, and it will create permanent hardship for generations of Syrians. The decrease in the quality and quantity of public services — due to international sanctions on one hand and the absence of the qualified staff on the other — is clearly shown in schools, universities and especially in hospitals and other medical services. It is important to mention that more than 90 percent of available services in the country are public services. Moreover, many on the ground are saying that the highly qualified personnel who left Syria for other countries during the war were often granted citizenship rights. This means they were integrated into the society and the economy, and it makes their return to Syria unlikely, if not almost impossible

Security and socioeconomic conditions. Economic sanctions against Syria and its ally Iran impact directly the situation for Syrians on the ground. For there to be any improvement, sanctions must be eased, if not lifted altogether, reported local church leaders. The severe shortage of basic supplies, such as electricity, fuel and gas, has made it difficult to produce and export products for external markets, cutting off Syria from the flow of cash and imports. Until there is a change in the status of sanctions, post-conflict life will be much harder on the remaining population and will delay the return of the more than 5.6 million Syrians registered as refugees outside the country.

During our visit, we were in contact with school teachers and other civil servants who reported that their salaries have lost most of their purchasing power, falling more than 800 percent, from $600 per month before 2011 to $72 in 2019. And when we inquired regarding the need to continue with some emergency activities, we were told that sometimes even buying a bottle of vegetable oil would represent a challenge. More seriously, others informed us that some people lost their lives because they were not able to pay for the cost of dialysis treatment, which costs on average $25 per session.

Access to property and assets. Law No. 10 of 2018 established the concept of “renovation zones,” which put conditions on residents who want to return to their properties. They must present their deeds or proof of ownership within a certain short time period, or risk losing everything. Knowing that already many deeds were lost, the public perceived this step very negatively and many consider it a threat. There is much uncertainty.

Tags: Syria ISIS

22 August 2013
J.D. Conor Mauro

In this photo from May, a boy displaced by fighting in Syria attends a class in the governorate of Idlib, Syria. (photo: CNS/Muzaffar Salman, Reuters)

Issam Bishara, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, has compiled a brief report on the state of displaced Syrian Christians — both inside Syria and abroad. An excerpt:

In a communication sent to Agenzia Fides, the Syriac Orthodox Church claimed that over 90 percent of the Christians of Homs have been expelled by militant Islamists of the Farouq Brigades, who went door to door confiscating homes and forcing Christians to flee without their belongings. Jesuit sources in Homs say most Christians left on their own initiative to escape the conflict between government forces and insurgents. In either case, the Christian population of Homs has dropped from a pre-conflict total of 160,000 to about 1,000.

Though most of the news is tragic, it is important to recall Pope Francis’ urging: “Do not let yourselves be robbed of hope!” As Mr. Bishara details, there is still cause for hope, as even now people are giving witness to Christ’s love and helping those people experiencing desperate need. For instance:

  • 4,800 displaced Christian families in the area of western Homs and Wadi al Nasara (“Valley of Christians”) have received food and other essentials — hygiene products, winter kits, etc. — in addition to school supplies for around 1,480 students

  • 350 displaced Christian families in Al Hassake were provided food packages

  • 1,000 families isolated in the war zones have been fed

To read the rest, click here. To find out how you can help, follow this link.

To read a Syrian Jesuit’s firsthand account of the great efforts underway to help those affected by the war — especially children — read the Rev. Ziad Hilal’s Letter from Syria, appearing in the Summer 2013 issue of ONE.

Tags: Refugees Syrian Civil War Violence against Christians Relief

1 May 2013
Greg Kandra

Despite the war, the Trappist sisters have chosen to stay in Syria at the monastery they established. (photo: Monastery of Valserena)

An Italian news site this week takes a look at a group of Trappist nuns that has established a monastery in Syria. Despite the violence and war around them, they are determined to stay:

We are simply here, open and available, according to our Rule. We will have to see what happens. In the present state of things one cannot make predictions, but it is our intent to stay close to the population and they are grateful for the fact that we have not moved.

Visit Il Sussidiario for the full interview.

Last fall, AsiaNews profiled the sisters and saw them as a “sign of hope” for Syria:

Amid the chaos of the Syrian civil war, when the main noise has been the sound of bombs going off and the screams of those they wounded, there are still some places where the prevailing hatred is held at bay. One of them is a Trappist monastery in the small Maronite village of Azeir, located in western Syria between the cities of Tartous and Homs. Five Italian nuns from the Monastery of Valserena (in Pisa) call it home. Despite the fighting raging around them, they chose to stay in the country. “Despite our Italian nationality,” said Sister Monica, superior of the Mother House, “and the resources we might have because of it, we are part of this community and cannot leave at a time of trial. Its fate is our fate.”

In letters written over the past few months and posted on the monastery’s website, the nuns describe the tragedies of the war and the suffering endured by the residents of the villages that surround them.

For the sisters, the monastery is a tangible sign of hope. “A place where God is worshiped in his real presence, both Eucharistic and Ecclesial, through prayers and brotherly communion, is a blessing for all.”

However, “our neighbours are discouraged,” said one of the letters posted. “Even in our small village, civilians and young conscripts have been killed.”

“The country,” wrote another, “has become a battleground for adversaries that are bigger than Syria, people who came to fight in this land and this people to settle their own conflicts.”

In each post, the Trappist nuns call on all Christians to pray for the Syrian population that welcomed them.

Click here for the rest of the story.

Tags: Syria Sisters Monastery Monasticism Trappist

12 March 2013
Bradley H. Kerr

This image from last fall shows the burned interior of Kevork Church is seen after clashes between Free Syrian Army fighters and forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al Assad in Aleppo. (photo: CNS/George Ourfalian, Reuters)

Since Syria fell into civil war, more than 900,000 Syrians have fled their homeland and two million more are displaced inside Syria. Christians have been hit especially hard. Cities like Homs, once the heart of the Christian community, are now all but empty of the faithful. Moreover, Christian refugees in neighboring Lebanon are reluctant to reach out for aid from the United Nations and the Red Crescent, out of fear for their safety.

Recently, the New York Times took readers into the heart of the crisis:

Quietly but inexorably, a human tide has crept into Lebanon, Syria’s smallest and most vulnerable neighbor.

As Syrians fleeing civil war pour over the border, the village priest here, Elian Nasrallah, trudges through muddy fields to deliver blankets. His family runs a medical clinic for refugees. When Christian villagers fret about the flood of Sunni Muslims, he replies that welcoming them is “the real Christianity.”

But the priest and his parishioners cannot keep up. The United Nations counts more than 305,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but local officials and aid workers say the actual number is about 400,000, saturating this country of four million.

The Lebanese government — by design — has largely left them to fend for themselves. Deeply divided over Syria, haunted by memories of an explosive refugee crisis a generation ago, it has mostly ignored the problem, dumping it on overwhelmed communities like Qaa.

So far, Lebanon’s delicate balance has persevered, but there is a growing sense of emergency.

Read further for more details. The picture it paints is harrowing.

We at CNEWA are working with our partners in the Eastern Catholic churches to ensure Syria’s Christians do not fall through the cracks.

This is how:

Coordinating Church Aid

Churches in Syria and Lebanon are already ministering to the needs of displaced Christians. But the Christian community is fractured and does not have a history of working together. The only institution known and trusted by all sides is CNEWA. Perhaps our greatest contribution to the relief effort has been to coordinate the initiatives with our church partners. Working together works.

Feeding Displaced Families

Inside Syria, we are helping our partner churches to feed 3,000 of the most vulnerable Christian families who are in their care. Some of these families live in especially violent areas and are too frightened to leave home; others are simply too poor to afford the cost of food. The families are receiving emergency food packages with enough to feed five people for a month.

Medicine for Refugees

With our help, the Good Shepherd Sisters in Lebanon are providing 800 Iraqi refugees with medicine for chronic health problems. They include families like Walid H., his wife and three children, all of whom have become asthmatic since moving into a moldy, one-room slum apartment. This family is receiving inhalers and other necessary medications, thanks to the sisters and CNEWA.

Helping Families Adjust

No one knows how long the refugees will be in Lebanon, but they are not going home any time soon. Working with Armenian Catholic and Armenian Orthodox church leaders, we are helping children from 450 families to adjust to Lebanon’s education system — a real challenge, as many schools only teach in French. We are also providing women with vocational training so they can find jobs.

Sheltering the Homeless

Lebanon has many parishes, congregations of religious and other Christian institutions. Right now, we are helping to survey church-owned real estate in order to identify vacancies where refugee families can live in stability and dignity.

You can be a part of our effort to bring help and hope to the suffering people of Syria. Visit our Syria emergency donor page to learn how your gift can make a difference!

Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Syrian Civil War Refugee Camps

5 December 2012
Bradley H. Kerr

Syrian children are seen at the Turkish border fence as members of the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party exchange gunfire in northern Syria. (photo: CNS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh, Reuters)

Vatican Radio today reported on the deepening crisis in Syria, with special attention devoted to the suffering children. The report noted that more than 200,000 children are at risk from cold and disease. Charities are calling for urgent funding — and that includes CNEWA.

We started sending aid to Syria when the crisis developed last spring. Our first focus was Christian children and families who were cast out of the city of Homs. But as more Christians flee from other cities, we are enlarging the scope of our concern. As of the last report I’ve seen, we’ve helped to provide emergency aid to 1,851 families and an additional 2,514 babies and children.

I’m especially pleased we’ve started to give away Winter Survival Kits — enough warm clothes and heating oil to protect a family from the winter cold. So far, 350 vulnerable Christian families have gratefully received these kits.

And that is only the start. We aim to help at least 2,000 families before the worst of winter is here. But we’ll need $210 to help each family before it’s too late. Please check out our special page devoted to the crisis in Syria to learn how you can help.

Tags: Syria Refugees Children Syrian Civil War Relief

20 September 2012
J.D. Conor Mauro

Concerned about what the future may hold without the protection afforded by the al-Assad regime, many Syrian Christians view the ongoing upheaval with trepidation. CNN reports:

Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Syrian Civil War Violence against Christians

19 September 2012
J.D. Conor Mauro

Last weekend, Pope Benedict XVI delivered his apostolic exhortation, entitled “Ecclesia in Medio Oriente,” in Lebanon. This long and detailed document, a summary of which can be found at the Vatican news site, lays out the hopes, concerns and general attitude of the Catholic Church on the church in the Middle East.

A week before this, however, the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue gave a terse, compact speech discussing many of the same key points, focusing specifically on what lies ahead for Syria:

In his speech, [Colombian priest] Father Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot — an expert on Islam and the Middle East, who headed the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies for a number of years before being called to the Curia in the early summer - summarises the Vatican’s five priorities for Syria: “an immediate end to violence from whatever part; dialogue towards reconciliation as the necessary path to respond to the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people; preserve the unity of the Syrian people regardless of ethnicity and religious affiliation; an appeal from the Holy See to the international community to dedicate itself to a process of peace in Syria and the entire region for the benefit and well-being of all humanity.” ...

Father Guixot underlines that by avoiding “partisan politics,” the Christian community does not show “cowardice” but “courage”: a “bridge” between different communities. This statement is also an implicit call to Christian leaders to try to ensure that the Church does not take sides.

In his speech, the number two man of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue recognizes the legitimacy of the government in Damascus, unlike Western chancelleries, but stresses that the “aspirations” of the Syrian people are “legitimate” and should not be ignored or crushed as if they were “foreign forces,” as many Christian leaders are doing. It is important to note that the international community’s call for continued efforts towards peace does mention the possibility of some form of armed conflict. ...

According to the Vatican, human rights, particularly religious freedom, can only benefit from democratic regimes taking root in the country and “Christians in the Arab world, alongside their fellow Muslim citizens, are ready to play their part as citizens who together strive to build societies that respect the human rights of all citizens.”

The first elections that took place following the “spring” in Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt have led to the victory of Islamic parties which “have adopted the language of pragmatism and moderation.” In response to these results, the Holy See has emphasized the need to cultivate a “culture of democracy” that can prevent this development from “descending into a negative form of “majoritarianism.”

But Guixot also understands the reasons behind the scepticism expressed by many moderate Muslim leaders towards western democratic systems, associated with “atheist” and “non Islamic” values they see coming from the West and underlines the importance of documents produced by Egyptian university Al-Azhar – the most respected centre of Sunni Islamic learning. These documents support the building of democratic systems, human rights and freedom of worship within the context of Islamic tradition. The Holy See upholds this, against groups like the Salafi movement, which uses “religion as a tool to create discord among the various components of the nation.”

Read the whole piece at Vatican Insider.

Tags: Syria Syrian Civil War Vatican Arab Spring/Awakening

12 September 2012
Bradley H. Kerr

According to the U.N., 100,000 refugees fled Syria in August for havens in neighboring nations, such as the Za’atri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, pictured above.
(photo: CNS/Majed Jaber, Reuters)

Bradley H. Kerr serves as promotional copywriter in CNEWA's New York office.

Today’s New York Times gives a heartbreaking report on the refugee crisis in and around Syria:

With less than a week before the start of the Syrian school year, classes have been scrapped indefinitely for tens of thousands of children, because their schools have either been destroyed or been sequestered as squatters’ quarters for displaced families, the officials said. In the province of Homs, so many doctors have fled that only three surgeons remained to serve a population of two million, the officials said, and laws to protect civilians during wartime were being ignored by both government soldiers and insurgents.

The United Nations refugee agency in Geneva said the number of people fleeing Syria had increased almost exponentially, from 18,500 in June to 35,000 in July to 102,000 in August. Roughly 2,000 Syrians were crossing daily into Jordan alone, trying to evade air and artillery attacks on towns near the southern border, said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the refugee agency.

The exodus has pushed the number of Syrian refugees to more than a quarter of a million, Mr. Edwards said.

There are more details in The New York Times.

CNEWA is working hard to provide lifesaving aid — such as food, medicine and heating oil — to Syrian refugees. If you want to contribute to the effort, please give here.

Tags: Syria Refugees CNEWA Syrian Civil War

30 August 2012
Erin Edwards

Young Syrian refugees walk through a camp in Anbar province west of Baghdad, Iraq, 19 August.
(photo: CNS/Ali al-Mashhadani, Reuters)

While violence and urest escalate in their homeland, many Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Recently the Catholic News Service reported on the plight of women and children fleeing the violence in Syria:

“Families are trying desperately to stay together,” but not always succeeding, [Caroline] Brennan added. Sometimes, men “stay home trying to protect their land, or they’re fighting — or worse, they’ve been kidnapped. The women are left to lead the family. They think: What is happening to the people they love in this world?“

But she also told of a Syrian husband and father named Faizad.

“He came across the border, but his wife and (most of their) children weren’t allowed to make it. But then he has a son he has to care for. He (the son) cries at night, he misses his mom,” Brennan said. Workers can tell from the boy’s drawings that he has seen “people with guns killing innocent people,” she added.

“This is a humanitarian crisis at its heart,” she said.

There are “huge social needs of the people, especially children and mothers,” said Vivian Manneh, a 20-year CRS veteran currently serving as a regional program manager for the Middle East. “Kids are starting to think, ‘What is going to happen to us? Where are we going to be?’ There are lots of psychosocial needs, lots of basic needs such as food, clothing, shelter.”

For more, read Syrian Refugees Flood Neighboring Countries.

Tags: Syria Iraq Refugees Middle East War

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