Fighting against emigration to ensure that the testimony of Jesus Christ lives on in the Middle East

For years, Syria and Lebanon have witnessed a steady haemorrhaging of their Christian populations. Through its engagement in multiple projects, ACN is actively campaigning against the exodus of Christians.

“I would like to get out of Syria as quickly as possible and join my father in the Netherlands, where he is waiting for us to follow him,” explains Jessy, a 21-year-old Christian from Homs in western Syria. “Of course I will be sad to go, but a lot of the people I know have already left the country in any case.”

The St Youssef Church runs a charitable kitchen to feed 300 elderly and poor people in Damascus
The St Youssef Church runs a charitable kitchen to feed 300 elderly and poor people in Damascus

A major portion of the Syrian population are living in poverty brought about by the civil war and inflation. “Ninety percent of Syria’s citizens are thinking of emigrating,” insists Father Basilios Gergeos of the parish of St. Joseph in Dwel’a, a Christian suburb of Damascus.

“This is a crucial moment!”

Both Muslims and Christians are leaving, but the number of Christians in Syria is so small that their departure would call into question the very existence of Christianity in the country. According to current estimates, only around 175,000 Christian families remain. And the exodus shows no sign of abating.

Sister Annie Demerjian of the Congregation of Jesus and Maria is furious about the situation: “It’s simply not fair! Our people are starving! After 13 years of suffering, people are tired, they have lost hope. It’s terrible to hear them say they wish they were back in the time of war because they were better off then.” And she adds, “This is a crucial moment. Either we help the remaining Christians to see a future for themselves, or they will all leave.”

Sr. Annie Demerjian (Congregation Sisters of Jesus and Mary) is one of ACN’s year-long projects partners in Syria
Sr. Annie Demerjian (Congregation Sisters of Jesus and Mary) is one of ACN’s year-long projects partners in Syria

In neighbouring Lebanon as well, where an economic collapse has brought the state to its knees, so many people are emigrating that the authorities stopped issuing travel documents back in 2022 because the number of new passport applications had reached 8,000 a day. Christians in particular, most of whom are well educated and have families abroad, are saying goodbye in droves to the country where the roots of Christianity can be traced back to Jesus himself. In light of the huge fear of an escalation of the war in Gaza that is gripping Lebanon at present, there is likewise no indication of an end to emigration here – with far-reaching consequences for the country. In the words of Jad Chlouk, the parish priest at the Maronite Cathedral of Saint George in Beirut, “If we go out of this country, no one will bear witness to Jesus Christ here anymore.”

Projects that are setting milestones

Against this background, the Church in Syria and Lebanon is making every effort to help the Christian community. Since they lack resources in many respects, the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is supporting the local Church in its mission by way of multiple projects.

Father Basilios Gergeos expresses his thanks to the benefactors of ACN: “Without them we cannot be as close to the people as we would like. They help us to serve the people.” In the parish in Dwel’a, where he works alongside two other priests, the projects supported by ACN include a psychiatric day clinic, summer camps and scouting activities, a kindergarten, a soup kitchen and the monthly distribution of milk to poor families, many of whom have children with growth disorders attributable to malnutrition. “All of these schemes show the families that the Church cares for them and is here to help. The projects play a major part in determining whether they remain in Syria,” comments Father Basilios.

Since it’s primarily young people who are seeking a better life abroad, ACN is striving, with the support of Catholic schools and various community activities, to give children and young adults social skills, open up future prospects for them in the two countries, and reinforce their faith.

Thousands of young Lebanese Christians who couldn’t attend the WYD 2023 gathered in August 2023 in Lebanon. They were physically distant, but emotionally united to the multitude who were in Lisbon with Pope Francis.
Thousands of young Lebanese Christians who couldn’t attend the WYD 2023 gathered in August 2023 in Lebanon. They were physically distant, but emotionally united to the multitude who were in Lisbon with Pope Francis.

An unprecedented experience, World Youth Day in both Syria and Lebanon, took place in summer 2023 to coincide with the main event in Lisbon. Most young people in these two countries lacked the funds needed to travel to Portugal. “This was a milestone event because it was the first time that the Catholic youth in each of the two nations were able to gather together, interact and encourage one another to build up their home country,” says Xavier Bisits, who is the ACN project leader in Syria and Lebanon. “All the young people I talked to, especially in the least stable and most remote regions, were deeply moved by the sense of unity and solidarity.”

“We are building our home!”

Even if many people regard emigration as the only way to enable their families to survive, both the Syrian and the Lebanese Christians have a strong desire to contribute to building the future of their countries. In order to fulfil this wish, however, they need financial independence. Speaking with certainty, Father Basilios of Dwel’a says, “If the Christians have a roof over their head and a job, they will stay here. It is their home, after all!”

In this context, the micro-projects overseen by the Hope Center and co-funded by ACN and others constitute an important initiative that gives extensive assistance and support to Christian families. By providing small loans, micro-projects help to fund equipment, machinery and tools, and enable women and men to set up their own businesses and thus gain independence from outside financial aid. The programme alleviates the economic damage caused by increasing poverty and insecurity while preserving human dignity, which ultimately safeguards the existence of an active Christian community in Syria. Giving thanks to ACN’s benefactors, Garabed Avedisian, who works for the Hope Centre in Syria, comments, “With these projects we are building not only our country, we are building our home!”

 

By Sina Hartert.

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