Syria: “A Ten-Year-Long Winter”

Source: FSSPX News

Fr. Georges Aboud

After 10 years of civil war in Syria, Christians represent only 2% of the population, less than half of those who were there at the start of the conflict. “Ten years ago, on March 15, 2011, the events began in Syria,” Dr. Nabil Antaki writes in the introduction in his Aleppo letter no. 41 of March 15, 2021, published on Facebook by the Aleppo Blue Marists.

Dr. Antaki tells us about the situation of his country suffocated by economic war after its destruction by rockets and bombs.

“From the Arab Spring so praised in the Western media, the Syrians saw only a long winter (10 years) very hard and unbearable, which destroyed the country, its infrastructure, its archaeological heritage, its schools, its factories, its hospitals, which have killed more than 400,000 people, scared away 5 million refugees in neighboring countries, uprooted 8 million people, the internally displaced, who no longer live at home, and pushed a million people onto the migration routes to Europe and other western countries.”

“We are living through an unparalleled economic crisis caused by 10 years of war, the financial crisis in Lebanon and the sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries. … From 2012 to 2018, for 6 years we had distributed monthly food baskets to more than 1000 families to help them survive during the dark years of war.”

“We stopped this project in early 2019, convinced that it was time for families to stop being dependent on aid from NGOs and to live off the fruits of their labor. Unfortunately, the economic situation is currently so dire that people are unable to make ends meet and have begged us to help them again with the food parcels.”

In addition to these parcels, there are daily hot meals for the elderly who live alone, the “Drop of Milk” operation for children and infants, care and activities for displaced people in the Shabba camp, located 30 km west of Aleppo, educational projects for children aged 3 to 6, cutting and sewing lessons for young women, etc.

“Since the beginning of the conflict 10 years ago, we, the Blue Marists, have been trying our best to relieve suffering, to allow families to live in dignity, to develop human beings, to find work for people, to sow seeds of hope, to work for reconciliation, and to prepare for peace. However, the Syrians are tired of waiting to see the end of the tunnel and to be able to live normally. Ten years is enough, it is too much.

“We call for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union in the short term and for the establishment of a peace in the medium term which should be the result of a dialogue between Syrians. …Pope Francis keeps repeating that we are “All Brothers.” May it be heard by those who treat Syria and the Syrians as enemies.”

According to Cardinal Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio in Damascus, there remained in January 2019, 2% of Christians in Syria, or about 470,000 faithful, out of a population estimated at 20 million inhabitants, as opposed to 6% in March 2011, before the civil war and 25% at the end of the Second World War.

“There is in Syria, at the moment, no known and credible alternative to Bashar al-Assad,” confides Fr. Georges Aboud, passing through on April 17 and 18, 2021 in the St. German parish of Gurmels (Cormondes), in the canton of Fribourg, Switzerland.

Invited to testify through the work Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Lebanese religious of the Basilian Salvatorian order was the Greek-Catholic Melkite priest (2001-2019) of the parish of St. Cyril, in Damascus, after having been vicar (1995-1998).

Syrian Christians back home, like many of their Muslim fellow citizens, fear that if the regime in place in Damascus were to fall, a terrible chaos would follow, as in Libya or Iraq. And the country’s many minorities (Alawites, Christians, Shiites, Druze, etc.) would be the first to pay the price, especially Christians who form one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, he explains.

There are 5 million Syrians missing from the country, refugees especially in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, also in Iraq. Some were able to go to Europe, Canada, Australia, explains Father Aboud.

“There are no sure statistics for Christians in Syria, but those who can leave, because no one can predict the future. There is certainly peace in the regions under government control, one can move around, but the international embargo imposed on Syria affects first and foremost ordinary citizens. As everywhere, the most privileged get by!

“Now the situation has been further aggravated by new sanctions targeting Syria and foreign companies trading with it, as the United States has imposed the Caesar Law (Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act), which came into force on June 17, 2020. … If before the war, you needed around 50 Syrian pounds for one euro, you now need 4000. Everything has become very expensive, salaries are no longer sufficient ... Everything has worsened for the ordinary people with the Caesar law!”

At present, Fr. Aboud points out, relations between Christian and Muslims have become somewhat normalized. Even at the height of the conflict, where Christians and Muslims lived together, where the government was in control, all lived together. But where armed groups and jihadists took hold, most Christians fled.

Christians, a minority in the midst of a Muslim majority, remain cautious, as many have lost confidence, and their security depends on government control. However, Fr. Aboud notes, Syrian Islam - unlike what is happening in other Muslim countries in the region - is historically more open, and this was noticeable from the departure of the Ottomans in 1918, even if it there is a fundamentalist and radicalized minority.

“At the time of Ramadan, in Syria, shops and restaurants remain open. Today, Syrian Islam remains generally more tolerant than elsewhere, but from the start of the uprising, we quickly saw infiltrations from abroad. Christians then feared the takeover of power by the Muslim Brotherhood and the establishment of Sharia law in the country, in the wake of what was called the “Arab Spring.”

For Fr. Aboud, foreign intervention in Syria is not intended to install democracy, it has, primarily, geopolitical aims, to change Syria’s alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, and to counter Russian influence in the region. And, with the Qatar-Turkey gas pipeline project which would avoid European dependence on Russian gas, this strategy also has economic goals.