compiled by Issam Bishara
The majority of Syrian Christians who flee their homes and villages prefer to find shelter in safer areas inside Syria. This is partly to remain close to their properties, but also because the cost of living is lower in Syria, allowing them to better stretch their scarce resources.
At present, more than 300,000 Christian Syrians are believed to be displaced both internally and abroad, and are distributed as follows:
In Homs, most Christians have fled. In a communication sent to Agenzia Fides, the Syriac Orthodox Church claimed that over 90 percent of the Christians of Homs have been expelled by militant Islamists of the Farouq Brigades, who went door to door confiscating homes and forcing Christians to flee without their belongings. Jesuit sources in Homs say most Christians left on their own initiative to escape the conflict between government forces and insurgents. In either case, the Christian population of Homs has dropped from a pre-conflict total of 160,000 to about 1,000.
In Al Qusayr, a town near Homs with a prewar Christian population of 10,000, all Christians were forced to leave by armed fanatic groups. At present, the government forces have taken back the town, but homes and infrastructure alike have been seriously damaged.
In Aleppo, thousands of families — including over 300 Christian families — were displaced from the neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, or Jabal al Saydeh, following a surge in violence in the northern city. The neighborhood, predominantly populated by Christians and Kurds, used to be one of the few relatively safe areas in the city and was hosting the greatest number of displaced families in the broader Aleppo area.
In Al Hassake, in northeastern Syria, the city’s bishops have issued a plea for assistance for some 25,000 Christians — including Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Chaldeans and Armenians — many of whom are refugees from neighboring areas.
With the support of its international partners over the past 14 months, CNEWA has been able to reach around 12,758 displaced Syrian families — among them thousands of children — inside Syria and Lebanon through the infrastructure of the local church, in order to provide emergency aid and alleviate suffering.
CNEWA’s programs gave priority to vulnerable Christian displaced families who were not settled in refugee camps nor registered at the UNHCR or the Red Crescent programs. Such families do not benefit from any donations provided by the Arab states of the Persian Gulf or international donors.
The approach adopted by CNEWA relies on partnering with churches and church-affiliated groups — parish priests, congregations, patriarchal representatives, bishops and others. These groups are already active and efficient in collecting the necessary social data about displaced families and have developed teams capable of implementing effective and timely programs to serve those in need.
Of the families CNEWA has been able to assist, Christians make up more than 90 percent. This includes:
- 4,800 displaced Christian families in the area of western Homs and Wadi al Nasara (“Valley of Christians”) have received food and other essentials — hygiene products, winter kits, etc. — in addition to school supplies for around 1,480 students
- 350 displaced Christian families in Al Hassake were provided food packages
- 1,000 families isolated in the war zones have been fed
- 2,850 displaced families in Damascus were sent shipments of food, milk and other supplies
- In Aleppo, around 1,908 Christian families received packages of food
- In Lebanon, 1,700 Christian displaced families received food and daily necessities, including:
- 500 Armenian families displaced from Aleppo who have settled within the Armenian community in Bourj Hammoud near Beirut
- 300 Greek Catholic families displaced from Al Qusayr and Homs who have settled in Zahle, in the Bekaa Valley
- 250 Greek Catholic families who have settled in the village of Al Qaa, in the northern Bekaa Valley
- 75 Syriac Catholic families displaced from Homs who have settled in Beirut
- 75 Syriac Orthodox families who have settled in a convent in Ajaltoun, on Mount Lebanon
- In Jordan, some 400 refugee families have received basic household supplies, and children participated in a summer camp and received emergency health care.
Church officials and rights groups say that many Christians have tried to remain neutral in Syria’s escalating conflict. Nevertheless, fighting continues to put pressure on the minority Christian population, leading to fears that more Syrian Christians will join those who have already left the Middle East. Many Christians in the region fear Syria will become another Iraq, where poor security after the United States’ invasion in 2003 has allowed militant Islamic groups to target Christians through intimidation, killings and kidnappings, driving hundreds of thousands of Christians out of the country.
A report recently published by the international Christian human rights organization Open Doors says Syria is now one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Christians. As the report describes, many Christians in Syria have become victims of violence and many churches and monasteries in the country have been ruined.
Other charitable organizations and some Christian families say they were expelled from Homs because they were considered “close to the regime.” Islamist opposition groups target not only those who refused to join the demonstrations, but also other Christians who were in favor of the opposition.
According to some sources, opposition forces had occupied some historical churches in the Old City of Homs, leading to many being damaged during clashes with the Syrian army, such as the St. Mary Church of the Holy Belt. In addition to damage from fighting, many reports concur that some opposition groups actively vandalize churches, destroying statues, icons and more.
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