In Aleppo the number of Christians shrank fivefold during the war. Now the economic crisis and the lack of professional employment opportunities are a source of anguish, especially for the young.
The performers are a choir of 60 or so children and young people, supported by five musicians. It is Saturday 17 March in the late afternoon. The Orthodox Youth Movement is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its creation. In the packed hall, the audience applauds appreciatively. A simple concept, but something that has become rare in recent years in this city of Aleppo, which was once the economic capital of the country, before the war.
The anguish of the young
Among the young singers is Miriam Toubal, aged 23, a student in biotechnology, who conducts the children’s choir. For a year now, for one hour a week, she has rehearsed them in singing these songs. The rehearsals are at least less stressful than during the war, though even that didn’t prevent the choristers from attempting to gather and sing.
It’s not long before Miriam confides in us her anxiety as to her future. Finding a good job so as to be able to continue living decently is a major challenge in a city devastated by six years of war, and since then by the economic sanctions. In Syria the level of youth unemployment is an estimated 78%. And so many of these young people are deeply concerned for their own future and that of those they love.
Aleppo (Syria), destroyed building in front of the Citadelle.
All activity paralysed
Since the end of the fighting, the situation has not got better in this once prosperous city. Quite the contrary, in fact. So many of the citizens of this town will tell you about the difficulties of daily life. The economic recovery, so long-awaited, is still not happening, and the average job does not pay well enough to provide the basic daily needs, so rapidly have prices risen. The souk, whose 13 km of stores and boutiques were once the pride of the city and were classed as a world Heritage site by UNESCO, still lies in ruins and has not yet been restored. In front of what was once his own stall, Elias Farah, on returning there for the first time, cannot hide his emotions, noting anxiously that the whole place seems to be in imminent danger of collapse.
The former economic capital of the country is suffering terribly from the economic embargo. «It’s the poor and the ordinary people who are suffering above all from the situation» says Syrian Catholic Archbishop Antoine Chahda of Aleppo. The war is continuing and the lack of future prospects is only adding to the unhappiness of the families and the despair of so many Christians. In the suburbs of Aleppo, the industrial zone is a desolate sight: the bombed out factories have been looted, and there is no sign of any activity whatsoever.
Aleppo (Syria), recital orgnized by MJO – Miriam Toubal, “the voice of Aleppo”.
In order to meet the daily needs of life, whether in Aleppo or in Homs, the Christian communities have organised themselves and are counting on the generosity of the universal Church. Once prosperous, they have become beggars, says Greek Orthodox Bishop George Abu Zakham of Homs, noting at the same time that the foreign aid is decreasing.
The support supplied by ACN, in the form of medical and food aid, help with rent and education, remains indispensable for many families. Lay committees have been set up, in order to be able to share out this aid fairly among the various different Christian communities. Their task is to identify the most urgent needs and closely monitor the use of the aid supplied. It is an effective system and one that enables the different Christian Churches to work together. It is a vital form of aid, and one that is rekindling a new spark of life in the stale air and smouldering ashes of a city in ruins. For a brief moment, Miriam was the voice of that city.
From March 2011 up to the end of 2018, ACN provided 29.5 million Euros in aid for Syria, in the form of 738 different projects. 80% of these projects were in the form of emergency aid.
ANTOINE HADDAD, 19, a member of the Armenian Catholic Church, grew up at the height of the Syrian civil war, amidst chaos and violence. The first bombings of Aleppo destroyed parts of his home. He gives a glimpse of his suffering in this interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN): “I was in school, and all of a sudden, the building shook, and the glass broke, and I started to scream. I did not understand what was happening. We could only pray,” he said.
With this explosion, Antoine’s life changed for the worse, and his school temporarily closed. “The school reopened, but these painful memories remained in every corner.”
One day, on his way home from school, Antoine learned that there was an armed group in his neighborhood: “We could not move. Death came very close, and it is one of the worst things a human being can experience. But when the gunmen entered the buildings, we were able to escape the house.” Antoine’s family fled to a relative’s home, but they were forced to return as a result of financial difficulty, and the armed group remained a threat.
“One Sunday, I felt that I had to go to Mass. I needed to pray in the church because I was spiritually tired. During Mass, my phone rang several times. It was my mother. She told me not to come home because shells were coming down on the neighborhood. But I couldn’t stay away from my family, so I went back to the house. I saw destruction everywhere. My father and brother were not home; they were helping a young man who’d been wounded by a shell. I was terrified. I cannot describe the pain I experienced then.”
Antoine Haddad (19) is a member of the Armenian Catholic Church in Aleppo. He grew up at the height of the Syrian civil war, amidst chaos and violence. The first bombings of Aleppo destroyed parts of his home. Antoine has persisted in his faith, however, and currently serves his local Church through teaching catechism and helping with other educational programs run by the Church.
“Another day, I was preparing for an exam, and I went to the store to buy pens. I heard a very loud voice on the way back, and I ran to the house to see what had happened. It was completely destroyed, though a neighbor told me that my family was safe.” “When I was young, my relationship with God was good, but since then, I’ve struggled at times. I always ask, ‘Why, Lord, why all this pain?’”
Antoine has persisted in his faith, however, and currently serves his local Church through teaching catechism and helping with other educational programs run by the Church. “I love my country for one good reason: the special social life and fraternal spirit that exist in the Church. But so many are leaving Syria, because there is no future here. I dream of becoming an actor—so I can share humanitarian messages—and of eventually living peacefully in a country that has suffered so much. The pain, poverty, and hunger we’ve endured are enough.”
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in March 2011 through the end 2018, ACN has allocated more than $33M for 738 projects, some 80 percent were in the form of emergency aid, among them some 308 programs to provide basic necessities to Christian families who have not left the country.
Friday, 15 March marks the eighth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Syria. The international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is marking the occasion (in its Spanish office) with an appeal to highlight the ongoing emergency situation in the country, and especially the plight of the 127,185 Christian families registered in Syria according to data collected by the foundation.
The war in Syria has unleashed the greatest humanitarian catastrophe since the Second World War, with some 12 million refugees and internally displaced.
Meanwhile, Christians in Syria now represent just 3% of the population, whereas before the war they were 10%. In addition to all the consequences of the hostilities and the economic embargo, they have also suffered religious persecution at the hands of the jihadist groups involved in the conflict.
During these eight years of war, in fact, 1,707 Christians were murdered and 677 abducted. At the same time 1,309 Christian churches and other Church properties were destroyed and 7,802 Christian houses and homes damaged or destroyed.
Mzaineh village, Valley of the Christians: Displaced family Granny, Johena, her daughter, Selma and grandchildren, Elian, 11, and 16-year-old Marita – all in receipt of ACN emergency help.
29.5 million Euros in aid
Since the beginning of the conflict, in March 2011, and up to the end 2018, ACN has allocated 29.5 million Euros for 738 projects to fulfil its mission to support the Church in need throughout the country. The projects were implemented by 9 different Christian Churches, thanks to the cooperation of 130 project partners on the spot.
Of the 738 projects funded, some 80% (23.5 million Euros) were in the form of emergency aid, among them some 308 for the basic necessities of Christian families who have not left the country.
10% of the aid has been for the reconstruction of people’s homes and Church properties. A further 6% was for the support of priests in the country, in the form of Mass stipends and pastoral aid.
Haiyar Palace, one of the big houses in Homs, destroyed by the bombs.
Emergency aid, reconstruction and pastoral aid
The 13 main emergency aid projects funded during these eight years of war include the following: direct emergency aid for the most basic necessities; food parcels, financial support for students, medical aid, support with rent, heating, electricity, gas and water; milk and nappies for babies and small children, essential medicines, Christmas gifts for the children, warm clothing, educational materials and vocational counselling.
The project “a drop of milk” for children under 10 years, accounted for 15% of the total emergency aid given, while over 2 million Euros were given in the form of help with rent for the Christian refugee families and almost 1 million (985,991) Euros in help for the rebuilding of the houses of returning families.
The appeal by Pope Francis
Pope Francis has never ceased to denounce the injustice of the war in Syria over the past eight years and has continued to draw attention to the suffering of the Christians. “Let us pray and let us help the Christians to remain in Syria and the Middle East as witnesses to mercy, pardon and reconciliation”, he has stated. “May the prayers of the Church help them to experience the closeness of the faithful God and touch every human conscience to seek a sincere compromise for the sake of peace. And may God our Lord pardon those who are waging war, those who manufacture arms to destroy one another, and may he convert their hearts. Let us pray for peace in our beloved Syria”, he concluded.
A bad day for Selma. Today, the Syrian mother of three children had to watch her oldest son leave for Lebanon. “My son had to go because of the difficulties. It was hard to say goodbye,” she says, fighting back tears as she washes a few coffee cups. “I don’t know when I will see him again. I was only able to give him some money for the trip. Not even something to eat. He has to walk the last leg. I will send him his clothes later.” Her story mirrors the current situation of many Christians in Syria.
The family fled when the crisis began in 2011 and terrorists descended upon the homes of Christians in Idlib. “They hammered against the doors to let us know that we had to leave because they wanted the houses. Who? We had never seen them before. They shot their guns into the air to frighten the people. Everyone packed up their belongings and left.” Since then, the family has been living with Selma’s mother Johaina in the Valley of the Christians in western Syria. When Selma’s husband died in a car accident three years ago, from one day to the next, the family had lost its breadwinner and its entire savings. Her son, 16 years old at the time, suddenly had to support the family by himself.
By the light of a battery-operated lamp, Selma talks about her other two children, her son Elian (11) and her daughter Marita (16). “Elian thinks like a mature man because he is now working from eight in the morning until six o’clock at night and no longer goes to school. He has developed eczema from carrying wood and furniture,” she says with concern. However, the widow is even more worried about Marita. “She has already received a lot of marriage proposals because she is so beautiful. However, she looks older than she actually is. To save money she walks to school, even when it is raining. But a young man from outside of the valley recently tried to pick her up.” Selma is proud of her daughter. “She took first place in a regional Olympics for chemistry and mathematics. But we did not have the money to travel to Homs for her to take part in the national competition.”
View of Choukri Al Kouwatli, one of the main avenues in Homs (Syria), where – despite the fact that the country is still at war – one can see the reconstruction of some flats together with others in ruins in a block of buildings.
When her daughter Marita suffered burns on her leg and no one could help Selma pay for her treatment and medicine, she turned to the centre of the Catholic Maronite Church in Marmarita, which is supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). She met Majd Jalhoum (29) and her brother Elie (31) there, who have spent the last seven years working together with a team of young members of the Catholic Maronite Church to help the many refugees in the Valley of the Christians. She has received food packages from them and some money for the rent. “Without them we would have nothing to eat. I used to go shopping at different markets all the time to borrow money from the various merchants. Now that I have money, I first have to pay them back.” Her faith is very important to the widow. “If God, the Virgin Mary and Elie – from the centre – had not been there, I would no longer be alive.” Selma’s most heartfelt wish is to have work and a house of her own again…but not in Idlib. Even if peace were to return, she does not want go back. “My house no longer exists. None of my Christian neighbours want to return.”
Selma’s story mirrors the circumstances of many Christians in Syria, as studies carried out by ACN on the situation of the Christians have shown. With the help of the dioceses, a small team is contacting parishes all across Syria to find out exactly how many parish members have stayed and how many have fled, were abducted or murdered. They are also cataloguing the church property that has been damaged or destroyed. Even if the results have not been published yet, alarming trends have surfaced. For example, a large number of young Christian men have just left the country so that they do not (or no longer) have to fight in the war. It is difficult to return; a legal provision dating back to before the war stipulates that they may only officially return after four years and after paying about 7,000 euros. For the many young men who are working for a pittance in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, this is a prohibitive amount. One concern with regard to the Christian presence in the country is that the women who remain will in the meantime marry Muslims…which inevitably means that the children will not be baptised.
Moreover, just like Selma, a number of refugees no longer want to return – irrespective of whether they stayed in the country or fled to other countries. Many lost all of their belongings during the war. Others have rebuilt their lives somewhere else and are not exactly thrilled by the prospect of having to face the uncertainty of a new job and a new flat in a country that has largely been destroyed and in which unemployment is rampant. And then there is the deep mistrust towards former Muslim neighbours who in some places were involved in the capture and occupation by extremists. As a result, only a very small community of faith remains at historically Christian places – and that although the Church has been established there since the first century A.D. It is questionable whether time will be able to heal these wounds.
Reznan Berberaska (22) on the balcony of her family’s home on the former front in Homs. It was renovated within eight months, a minor miracle when you see the destruction on the street from the balcony.
Sign of hope
Then again, Christians are coming back to the most unexpected places. Such as the family of Reznan Berberaska (22) from Homs. Their house is located at the former war front. It was renovated within eight months, a small miracle when you look down from the balcony of the house over the destruction on the street. Reznan, who would like to become a pharmacist, points to the plastic chairs and the full clothesline that are visible farther down the street through the large holes in the façade. “They are also busy rebuilding there.” The Church in Syria is hoping to see a reversal similar to that which occurred on the Nineveh Plains in Iraq. Prior to the withdrawal of the so-called Islamic State, only 4% of the local refugees wanted to return home. Now, two years later, 45% of the 12 000 houses that were destroyed have been rebuilt and the families have in fact come back. For this reason, a committee of the largest communities of faith in Homs signed an agreement with ACN last week for the reconstruction of several hundreds of houses. With a lot of prayers and help from outside of the country, the dream of Reznan of Homs may come true: “That the street is restored to what it used to be.” However, in view of the migration of Christians in Syria on the one hand and the necessary rebuilding of houses and churches on the other hand, the prospects are not good. Syria will never return to that which it once was, it will never be the same country.
Homs reconstruction committee “critical” to regrowth of Christian community
AN action plan to enable thousands of Christians to return to their homes in the Syrian city of Homs was agreed in a house-repair scheme involving Church leaders and a leading Catholic charity.
At the meeting in Homs, the leaders of five Church communities signed the Homs Reconstruction Committee agreement, in which Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need will repair 300 homes as part of the first stage of the plan.
In the second phase, a further 980 homes are due to be rebuilt – 80 from the Melkite Greek Catholic community, 600 Greek Orthodox and 300 belonging to Syriac Orthodox families. ACN will support part of the project.
Highlighting the significance of the agreement, ACN Middle East projects coordinator Father Andrzej Halemba said: “The agreement is one of the most critical steps forward in the recovery of the Christian community in Homs.
“The commitment to rebuild so many homes offers the light of hope for people desperate to return to the city that is one of the most important for Christians in the whole of Syria.”
Metropolitan George Abdou Zakhem (on the right) greeting the faithful who came for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. On the left: Fr. Dr. Andrzej Halemba.
Greek Orthodox Bishop Georges Abou Zakhem of Homs said: “The people need to come back to their houses but they can’t do so without the help of ACN.”
Melkite priest Father Bolos Manhal said: “I am very happy that people have this wonderful opportunity to return to their homes. They have suffered so much and for many coming home will be a dream come true.
“They have had to spend so much money renting a place to live so to have their homes rebuilt will take a huge pressure off family budgets. There are more job opportunities in the city than in the countryside so they will now be able to take advantage of them.”
ACN will be contributing a maximum of US$3,500 towards each house being repaired.
13 February 2019, when the foundation document of the Homs Reconstruction Committee was signed in the city of Homs. This ecumenical body created to overview the reconstruction of Christian houses in Homs was created by the leaders of five Church communities and ACN.
With more than 12,500 homes destroyed in Homs and 37,500 badly damaged, many Christians have been living in displacement in the nearby Valley of the Christians for up to seven years.
At the height of the conflict in 2014, there were less than 100 Christians remaining in Homs Old City and targeted attacks by Islamist extremists forced nearly 250,000 to leave.
Last year, ACN piloted a scheme to repair 100 homes belonging to Melkite and Syriac Orthodox families, of which 85 are already reoccupied and the rest due to return at the start of the new academic year in the autumn.
The 2018 Homs renovation plan was part of a scheme which has already led to the repairs of nearly 500 homes across Syria, of which many are in Aleppo.
Since the crisis in Syria began in 2011, ACN has completed 750 projects involving 150 partners.
Christian families in Syria forced from their town by extremists celebrated their return on Thursday, 14th February with a ceremony marking the reconstruction of their homes.
At the service, parishioners packed into St Mary’s Church, in Krak des Chevaliers (Al Husn) village, and received ‘Jesus is my Rock’ stone tablets and bottles of holy water to signify the completion of repairs to houses devastated during a two-year campaign of violence at the height of the war.
Presiding at the ceremony, Greek Catholic Melkite Archbishop Nicolas Sawaf of Lattakia, thanked Aid to the Church in Need, which funded the programme to repair 55 houses.
Father Andrzej Halemba (ACN Middle East Projects Coordinator) and Greek Catholic Melkite Archbishop Nicolas Sawaf of Lattakia.
He said: “Given everything that the people have suffered, the violence and the hatred, who would have thought these houses would be constructed?
“For me it is a dream and my sincere thanks to Aid to the Church in Need.”
Reflecting on how neighbours were implicated in the attacks on the Christian homes, he added: “We must remember we as Christian citizens of Syria have a special mission of love, compassion and reconciliation. We should not hate our enemies, we should forgive them.”
Presenting the ‘Jesus of my Rock’ tablets to representatives of each family, Father Andrzej Halemba, ACN Middle East projects coordinator, said: “These tablets will remind you that you are not alone, that God is always with you and that the friends and benefactors of ACN are always praying and supporting you.”
Among those who received a tablet was Hasan Marmari, 60, who returned to his home a few weeks ago after ACN completed repairing it.
Homecomers Hasan Marmari and his wife Halloun Jreij with the Jesus is my Rock stone tablet.
Mr Marmari, who described how his son, George, went missing five years ago during military service, said: “Of course there is still so much pain and suffering for so many of us but to be finally back home and able to re-start our lives is a huge step forward and an important sign of hope.”
The Christian area of Krak des Chevaliers village came under attack in 2012 when extremists, including Muslims in the district, turned on them as part of the rebels’ campaign to take the nearby medieval Crusader castle, of crucial strategic significance as they sought to gain a stranglehold over the region.
As well as repairing the houses, ACN restored St Mary’s Church, which dates back 900 years and which was badly attacked and desecrated during the violence.
Since the conflict began in 2011, the charity has completed nearly 750 projects in Syria, such as emergency help for displaced Christian families in the Valley of the Christians, which includes Krak des Chevaliers village.