PRESIDENT TRUMP’S order to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria effectively greenlit Turkey’s invasion of the region. With this shift in US policy, Turkey has been given an opening to reshape its borders and begin to carry out a multi-faceted strategy. As the crisis unfolds, one thing is clear: Christians and other minorities are again in the eye of the storm.
Northeastern Syria is home 30.000 to 40,000 Christians, Armenians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, as well as Syriac Catholics and Syriac Orthodox. Although suffering some restrictions, they have been living under the protection of the Kurds in an area that stretches 300 miles from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border. Kurds comprised the bulk of the Syrian Defense Forces that, alongside US troops, fought against ISIS.
With the Kurds now likely to engage Turkish forces in battle, Christians and other minorities are afraid they will be left without protection. This confrontation may trigger an exodus, further depleting the Christian population of Syria, which has already shrunk by 80 percent in some regions since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011. To make matters worse, Kurds have warned that they may abandon the guarding of some 11,000 ISIS prisoners, who, if freed, would pose a huge threat to the entire region.
Already some refugees from northeastern Syria have reached Kurdistan and northern Iraq. A new wave of refugees will overwhelm the capacity of local government and the local Church to care for them. The Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, Kurdistan, was home to 120,000 Christians who had fled the 2014 ISIS invasion of northern Iraq. Still some 40,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) are placed in the archdiocese and it would simply lack the means to cope with a new influx of refugees from Syria. What’s more, fleeing to Lebanon is not an option. Lebanon, overwhelmed by more than a million Syrian refugees, has initiated a policy of forcing refugees to return to their homeland.
Erbil’s Archbishop Bashar Warda expressed major concerns that once again, “Christians and Yazidis will be collateral damage” as great powers make their moves in the region. He worries that many of the Christian refugees from northeastern Syria, unable to find adequate refuge in Kurdistan or northern Iraq, may leave the Middle East altogether.
Will Western nations stand up and protect Christians and other minorities? Non-state actors, such as faith-based organizations, will have to fill the gap best they can. For its part, “Aid to the Church in Need will continue to stand firm in its commitment to protect and serve persecuted Christians in the Middle East and beyond,” said George Marlin, Chairman of ACNUSA.
Turkey’s plan to create a 20-mile wide safe zone in Northeastern Syria may serve multiple purposes, among them a possible forced resettlement of up to 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently in Turkey; Sealing off the refugees from Turkish territory—the gateway to Europe—would give President Erdogan leverage in negotiations with the EU for billions of dollars in payment for keeping thousands of refugees from migrating to Europe. Turkey may also claim significant resources, such as fertile agricultural land, ample water from the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and vast natural gas reserves.
Turkey’s plans may even go further. President Erdogan may well want to extend his nation’s control of Syrian territory to also include northwestern Syria. That would raise the prospect of the displacement of Christians all across northern Iraq, including Aleppo, where the Christian population numbers around 30,000. Such development could be “the beginning of the end” for Christians in Syria, said Father Mesrob Lahian, an Aleppo-based Armenian Catholic priest.
President Trump’s much-criticized decision to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria has set in motion a highly unpredictable sequence of events that could lead to massive military confrontations involving the major powers with stakes in the region—Russia, Iran, the US, Turkey and the Syrian regime. Ultimately, said Archbishop Warda, such a major escalation may well achieve the ISIS agenda: “the eradication of Christianity from the Middle East.”
Ed Clancy is director of outreach for Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a papal charity that supports the suffering and persecuted Church around the world.
“As always, everyone has their own interests, but it is we Christians who will suffer the consequences.” Speaking with profound bitterness, Emeritus Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, Syrian-Catholic of Hassaké-Nisibis in the Kurdish area of Syria, was commenting to Aid to the Church in Need on the news coming from the border between Syria and Turkey. Two Christians were allegedly killed in an attack that took place yesterday in Qamishli.
Archbishop Hindo met last March with the leaders of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) (PYD). “I invited them to desist from their plans – he says – they believe they have the right to an autonomous region as there is an Iraqi Kurdistan and a Turkish one. But the Kurdish population in those areas of Syria is just 10%. They are also people who came as asylum seekers after 1925, who have Turkish or Iraqi nationality. They have no right “. The bishop is convinced that the Kurds will lose the clash with Turkey, especially due to the lack of support from the United States and other Western forces. “It was not clever to move from the Kurds, it was clear that no one would help them. Now they will lose everything, as happened in Afrin ».
Emeritus Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo, Syrian-Catholic of Hassaké-Nisibis in the Kurdish area of Syria.
At the present time the thoughts of Archbishop Hindo are with the 5,000 families of the Diocese of Hassaké-Nisibi. “In recent days, many had already moved from the border towns to Hassaké. Now the conflict has become even more serious and I fear that many will emigrate. Since the beginning of the war in Syria, 25% of the Catholics of Qamishli and 50% of the faithful of Hassaké have left the country, along with 50% of the Orthodox from both, Qamashli and Hassaké. I fear a similar exodus, if not a greater one».
There is also great concern about the high numbers of Isis-linked fighters in the area.
“I learned that the Chirkin prison, where jihadists from the Islamic state are being held, had apparently been hit. What was the point of that? That way the great majority of them will now be free. This is a plan to destroy Syria and not only Syria. Now the terrorists will also arrive in Europe, through Turkey and with the support of Saudi Arabia”.
Monsignor Hindo also called upon the international community to acknowledge its responsibilities. “The United States, Italy, France, the United Kingdom and Germany should all offer their own mea culpa. They acted in Syria for their own interests, hiding behind the ideals of freedom and democracy. Instead, they have done nothing but weaken our country, at the expense of its own people. Why don’t they fight for freedom and democracy in Saudi Arabia? “
On the same day that the 6000 rosaries blessed earlier, on 15 August, by the Pope were distributed in the parishes of Syria, Pope Francis also blessed the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Sorrows and Consolatrix of the Syrian People.
This was a new gesture on the part of the Holy Father in support of the “Console my People” campaign of prayer for Syrian Christians organized by ACN together with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches in Syria on behalf of those whose near and dear ones have been abducted or killed during the eight years of the conflict.
Pope Francis met with a delegation from ACN led by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza.
This morning at the Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis met with a delegation from ACN led by Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, the international president of the Foundation, and blessed an icon specially painted by a Greek Orthodox artist for this particular prayer campaign. This artist was also a member of the delegation, as were a number of national directors of ACN. Earlier on 15 August the Pope had already expressed his support for the initiative, even specially inviting the international executive president of ACN, Thomas Heine-Geldern, to stand with him at his balcony window at the conclusion of the Angelus greeting, during the blessing of the rosaries.
These 6000 rosaries, blessed by the Holy Father and made by Christian craftsmen in Bethlehem and Damascus, are being distributed today in the parishes of all 34 Syrian diocese – both Catholic and Orthodox – in commemoration of the feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. During the celebration of Holy Mass in these parishes and in the various different processions connected with them the faithful will be praying for those who were killed or abducted during the war and for their families. Altogether some 2000 Christian families have lost one or more loved ones during the conflict and 800 had a family member abducted. Along with the rosaries, Bibles in Arabic, also donated by ACN, are being distributed, along with crosses made of olive wood from the Holy Land and blessed by Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ephraim III.
Pope Francis also blessed the icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of Sorrows and Consolatrix of the Syrian People.
On several occasions Pope Francis has alluded to the ACN initiatives on behalf of the Martin Syrian people. On Sunday 2 December, after the Angelus, the Pope lit a candle as part of the ACN prayer campaign “Candles for Peace in Syria”.
Following today’s meeting, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza expressed his heartfelt gratitude to the Holy Father for his affectionate closeness, as always wherever there are tears to be dried, a sign of just how much the world needs compassion. He added that the feast of the Sorrowful Mother offered us a lesson of true and profound compassion and maternal tenderness. Mary suffers for Jesus, but at the same time she also suffers with Jesus, and the passion of Christ is a sharing in the whole of human suffering, he said.
Piter Essa, 17, graduated from High School in Aleppo, Syria, this spring. Piter, who is Syriac Orthodox, recounts to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) some of his painful experiences of the fighting of the past eight years:
“I’ve survived this awful war, and I live my life like I used to. My school didn’t close at all, so I was able to continue with my studies; I graduated from High School this year.
“I was separated from many friends who were forced to flee. I personally experienced violence in the forms of mortars and missiles, which did physical and psychological damage. I tried to remain strong for my loved ones: I had their backs, and I told them that everything would be okay, but I didn’t fully believe that myself.
Piter Essa, 17, graduated from High School in Aleppo, Syria.
“I want to mention a particular about an incident, one of many similar incidents that happened during the war: one day, I was helping my dad with the groceries, and we were walking and chatting in peace until a huge cloud of fire appeared in front of me. It was a mortar explosion. I heard nothing but screaming babies and a sharp whistle; I saw nothing but bodies, and there was blood everywhere. My father and I ran without looking back and only stopped when we reached a safe zone.
“In that moment, I wasn’t angry or sad. I was terrified. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, except in movies. It was horrible, and it stays with me even now. Sometimes I dream about that day—the innocent people being killed for nothing, absolutely nothing.
“Our saddest moment came when we had to leave our home. There were too many mortars falling around us, and we could not continue to risk our lives. So we moved to another area.
“Prayers helped keep me going, as did my family’s support; they provided for me and allowed me to live a ‘teenage’ life. My hobbies also distracted me from the violence: I listened to music all the time, as it offered an escape from what we were facing outside. And I wore a cross around my neck to remind me that, even when I felt lost, I was not alone.
In Aleppo, Syria, a teenager drew on his faith to make it through the darkest days of the civil war.
“Today, I am feeling safe again. There’s been no mortars, missiles, explosions, or screaming, and my community is thriving. I’ve found true friends who understand and accept me as I am, and my family’s faith has endured. I love my country and its history. I feel connected to it.
“I plan to study abroad and become specialized in the area of Artificial Intelligence. I will return to Syria after. For me, the internet is an important communication tool: I use it every day, and I can see how other countries are reacting to our crisis. In my opinion, there are few countries that seriously care about us; many others only pretend to. I feel that most people aren’t responding.
“But I still have faith, and that was all that we had to survive. And I dream that one day, we will all be able to live in our country in lasting peace.”
Yolla Ghandour, a Syrian-Armenian Catholic and mother of three, lives in Aleppo. She saw some of the worst fighting of the Syrian civil war. She talked to Aid to the Church in Need about the death of her 19-year-old son, Krikor, who died in the fighting.
“There were five of us: my husband, my two sons and daughter, and myself. Our financial circumstances worsened as a result of the war. My husband and Krikor lost their jobs because the area where they worked was dangerous; it was shelled by militants. To cover necessities, we relied on our savings. It was a difficult time. “A week before he died [on April 16, 2014], Krikor came home to visit us because an uncle had passed away. While getting ready to leave again, he turned to his father and said, ‘I am going back to death.’
Syria: a mother, her son killed in the war, finds strength in her faith: ‘our roots must be planted in God’.
“On the day he died, we spoke on the phone, and after the call ended I had a strong feeling, like a premonition. I prayed to the Virgin Mary: ‘Please don’t test me. You tasted from this cup; please don’t let me experience the same pain.’ “That night I received another call. They told me that Krikor was wounded, and that he’d been taken to a hospital. I rushed to his side, praying to St. Sharbel: ‘I have given you my son. I do not want to find him dead.’ But, inside, I was nearly sure that he had died.
“After his death, I struggled with St. Sharbel: ‘I don’t love you anymore. I begged you to keep my son alive, and you didn’t.’ Then, about 10 minutes later, I looked at the saint’s face in a painting we own and said to him: ‘I can’t keep myself from loving you. But promise me that you will be with my son.’ “As Christians, we believe in the resurrection, and after a few months of reflection on life in the kingdom of God, I learned that the dead see, hear, and feel us. And I found that I could be proud of my son, above all else.
ACN has supported the pastoral and humanitarian mission of the various Churches in Syria with projects totaling more than € 33M.
“When we face life’s storms, we must stand like a strong tree, roots fixed deeply in the ground. Our roots must be planted in God; we must weather change and grief with trust in his love.” From 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, through 2018, ACN has supported the pastoral and humanitarian mission of the various Churches in Syria with projects totaling more than € 33M.
In the course of 2019 the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is supporting over 40 different projects for summer activities on behalf of the Christian communities in countries where they are a minority, experience discrimination or suffering as a result of wars or other conflicts. Almost half these projects are for the Christian communities in the Middle East, above all in Syria, where a total of 28 such summer courses will be held for young people and families. After a bloody and fratricidal war, which has resulted today in a critical economic and social situation, Christians of various different faith communities from the dioceses of Homs, Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus have been or will be gathering together between June and September to recuperate, gain new strength and find healing for past trauma.
Summer camps in Syria – “She felt her heart had begun to beat again”.
Father Antoine Mukhallala, of the Greek Melkite diocese of Aleppo, has just returned from one of the eight summer courses that are being organised by the Faith and Life Community for handicapped people and their families. It can sometimes be difficult to comprehend what these people suffered during the war. Terrorised by the bombings and by the snipers, who killed civilians for no reason whatsoever, they scarcely dared emerge from their homes. Today these people have great need of psychological support and a need to encounter God to find peace through prayer amid nature. Hence the summer camps are a ray of light for them in this situation.
Among the many things Father Antoine has encountered, there is one story in particular he wants to tell ACN about. It concerns a widow, the mother of two little girls, one of whom is autistic. “This mother was suffering terribly, because she had lost her husband when he attempted to emigrate in one of the “ships of death” to Europe. Not because he drowned, however, but because he was murdered, and she had to witness his body being returned to her with his throat cut.
This woman was suffering greatly, yet living imprisoned in her solitude. Although physically present among the rest of the group, she barely spoke, either about her dead husband or her daughter. She rejected every kind of happiness, even though the others tried to reach her in her pain. Little by little, however, during the summer camp week, a sense of love began to return to this woman’s heart; the darkness began to lift from it and it began to beat again with love. She began to realise once more that life is beautiful – partly thanks to the dramatic change in the behaviour of her autistic daughter, who even invited me to dance with her!
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International) is supporting over 40 different projects for summer activities.
At the end of the week, this mother said to us, “If only the camp had lasted another week, I’m quite sure that my Jenny would even have begun to speak!” I have been involved in many summer camps during my six years as a priest, but this most recent one in Kfarsetta with the “Family of Hope” was one of the most beautiful of all, in which I experienced the joy of Love and of which I can say that I received more than I gave”, Father Antoine continues.
“I give thanks to God for what this woman experienced and for having been given the opportunity to live many such spiritual experiences. And I also want to thank you all, the representatives and benefactors of ACN, for having supported these camps, for without your support we could never have had this experience, which has brought us so much closer to the advertised theme of the summer camp, which was “Building community, with God”. I pray to Almighty God that he may bless you all so that you can continue helping all those who call upon you and that you may continue being an instrument of God in spreading his Love throughout the world”, he concludes. This summer many other groups of children, young people and families, like the “Family Hope”, will be taking part in similar summer camps, not only in other parts of Syria but also in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Crimea and the Republic of Congo, so that they can relax, recuperate and find new strength, not merely physically and psychologically, but also spiritually.