CNEWA Canada

Update: Syrian Refugees

The following report is written by CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, Issam Bishara.

I. Background

As civil war engulfs Syria, leaving a tragic stalemate, the fate of Christians in the country hangs in the balance.

In fact, the Christians are geographically dispersed and politically diverse communities, unlike the Sunnis, Alawi, Kurds and Druze.

In Syria, there are many different Christian communities, and they are scattered across a varied political, religious and ethnic landscape. The Greek Orthodox, the largest Christian community in Syria, is primarily concentrated in the western parts of the country and in Damascus. That means they are in areas currently controlled by the regime of President Bashar el Assad and his Alawite minority.

The Syriac Orthodox, who form the second largest Christian community in Syria, are primarily concentrated east of the Euphrates River. They live in a large swath of fertile land that is bordered by Kurdish-majority areas in Turkey to the north and Iraqi Kurdistan to the east. Northeast Syria is mainly Kurdish and effectively autonomous today.

As for a majority of Melkite Greek Catholics and Armenians, they are concentrated in Sunni-dominated central Syria, principally in Aleppo province, which is close to Turkey. The area is heavily infiltrated by the Free Syrian Army and has been the scene of intense fighting.

Therefore, the Christian tapestry in Syria shows specific concentrations in three distinct areas, each with its own political, sectarian or ethnic particularities. Given that the current balance of power will likely endure in the absence of any dramatic foreign intervention in the Syrian conflict, it becomes apparent that no single policy can safeguard all the Christians of Syria.

II. Current Situation of Christians in Syria

As of 30 September 2012, the United Nations has estimated that 300,000 Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, while a further 1.5 million Syrians have fled their homes to find refuge in other towns and districts within Syria.

Accordingly, Christians have taken the same course to save their lives, but none of the Christian displaced families have fled to a refugee camp either in Turkey or in Jordan. Some of them have found temporary havens among families and communities, both within Syria and Lebanon, with whom they have cross-border connections and shared histories. However, as the host families’ ability to host becomes strained and refugees can no longer afford even the most basic rents, they will become more visible as a refugee population in need of immediate aid.

The major Syrian Christian displacement occurred as follows:

  • In Homs, anti-government militants have expelled 90 percent of the city’s Christians and confiscated their residences by force, according to the Fides Agency. Sources cited that militants went door to door in the Homs neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al Diwan, “forcing Christians to flee, without giving them the chance to take their belongings.” As a result, at least 50,000 Christians had to flee their homes and to find refuge in the villages, the Valley of Christians, Damascus and Tartous.

  • In Qusayr, near Homs, the Christian population estimated at around 10,000 persons had also to flee completely their dwellings following an ultimatum from the military chief of the armed opposition, Abdel Salam Harba. Some mosques in the city have re-launched the message, announcing from the minarets: “Christians must leave Qusayr within six days, which expires this Friday.” The ultimatum, therefore, expired 8 June, and produced fear among the Christian population.

  • Rableh, a small village near Qusayr that was primarily inhabited by 7,000 persons — 50 percent of whom are Melkite Greek Catholic and the rest are Maronite — became the refuge for another 5,000 Christians displaced from Qusayr. At present, the whole village with 12,000 Christians inside is under siege by both the rebels and the government forces, vying for tactical advantage. The village is a real battlefield.

  • In Deir el Zor, around 500 Christian families left their homes following the acts of violence and threats against them by the opposition militants, found refuge in the largely Kurdish town of al Hassake.

  • In Aleppo, the second-largest city in Syria, the situation of the large Christian population is still unclear as the fighting in still going on from one neighborhood to another. Surveys or statistics about displaced families is not available yet, but given the level of destruction and violence, it is believed to represent a significant humanitarian catastrophe.

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