One of the priorities of the charity is to sow new hope wherever possible.
Over the past three months, from April to June 2017, the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has approved a total of 32 projects in Syria – for a total value of 987,460 Euros – to help those suffering the consequences of the war over the past six years.
Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Latakia, Marmarita, Al Hassakah and Sadad are some of the towns and cities that will benefit from these aid programmes, the principal aim of which is to support and strengthen the various Christian communities which remain in the country. Nevertheless, the local Christian churches through whom the aid is channelled will of course not refuse help to anyone in need, with the consequence that this aid is also helping many needy Syrian Muslims.
Although Syria is no longer daily at the forefront of the news media, the situation in the country remains extremely difficult. The massive destruction, especially of such important cities as Aleppo and Homs, has not been limited merely to the physical infrastructure and buildings. The trauma of warfare has left deep psychological scars on the people – leading to anguish, fear, sickness and even death.
A priority for ACN, therefore, is to sow fresh hope wherever possible. As a result five of these new projects which have been approved for Aleppo are directed especially towards the children and young people. They include help for two Christian schools run by religious sisters, one of which incorporates an orphanage and both of which had been occupied and extensively damaged since 2012. The number of pupils at the schools has fallen sharply, since many families have fled or emigrated, and those who are left cannot afford to pay for their schooling. Currently, almost 69% of the population of the city are suffering poverty (families earning less than two dollars a day) and 35% are suffering extreme poverty. Hence, as Sister Christiane Camilla of the Missionary Sisters of Perpetual Succour, who is responsible for one of these schools, points out, without this help from ACN they would have to close the school, with the result that the 145 children still at the school – which formerly had 1000 pupils – would possibly also be forced to leave Aleppo.
Many young people are suffering profoundly from a sense of anxiety, isolation and uncertainty about their future. There is an increasing sense of frustration among some of them at their limited access to a quality education. This is also the reason behind two of the other projects supported by ACN in Aleppo, which are aimed at rebuilding a more normal environment for the children and young people, many of whom have been practically confined to their homes during the last four years for fear of the missiles and bombs. These involve a multipurpose sports hall and a basketball pitch, situated in different parts of the city, which before the outbreak of the conflict were regular gathering places for young people of the Armenian and Syrian Christian minorities. The aim is to repair these places so that they can once more be safe places for young people to meet together and find some relief from the profound trauma they are suffering.
Undoubtedly the most expensive aspect of the 32 projects approved by ACN involves the emergency aid provided to enable the Christian communities to survive the desperate situation in which they find themselves. The charity has promised 230,000 Euros to the female congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary to help them continue their food aid programme, which benefits almost 2,200 displaced families in Al Hassakah and Aleppo. Similarly, in the south of the country, in the so-called Valley of the Christians, ACN is supporting two projects (total value 165,000 Euros) run by the Missionaries of Saint Paul. These will provide monthly support until the end of the year for 250 students who could not otherwise continue their university studies without a grant. They will likewise help 340 families who are unable to pay their rent – which has often increased exorbitantly in the area – and an additional 75 beneficiaries facing extreme necessity, such as widows or the war wounded.
Although the pontifical foundation is responding to the immediate needs for food, electricity, rent and medical supplies, faithful to the founding spirit of the charity ACN has not forgotten the importance of it’s pastoral mandate –medicine for the soul.
Examples of this are the repair of two Syriac Orthodox churches in the historic city of Sadad, sadly notorious for the killings by the Islamist rebels of the Al-Nusra Front in 2013 and the attacks by ISIS in November 2015 (ACN reported on both incidents). Now, little by little the Christians of one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world, who still speak the Aramaic language today, are returning to their homes. The church and parish house of Saint Sarkis, and likewise that of St George, were damaged and partly destroyed during the attacks. Now ACN has undertaken to raise funds for their repair.
Many Syrian Christians sought refuge during the war in safer areas such as Latakia and Hama, with the result that the infrastructure of the local churches in these towns is now too small to cope, or else there is a need for rapid repairs. Consequently, four parishes in these towns have sought help from ACN to renovate their churches or install additional facilities. In many cases these are only small projects, for example the church of Our Lady in Latakia which, following the arrival of 1000 new refugee families from Aleppo, Homs and Raqqa, now needs to install a loudspeaker system – which they did not have for the original community of just 300 families.