CNEWA Connections: Fasting, Food and the Hunger of Syria

In my last blog post, we considered the religious value and practice of fasting. We saw how the Bible looks at fasting and realized that fasting was much more than merely abstaining from food.

But a recent report to the United Nations has given us another way to think of the absence of food — and it is both disturbing and heartbreaking.

On 25 February, Mark Lowcock, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, briefed the U.N. Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Syria. I have been following the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria and the Middle East for 10 years. However, it never intersected with fasting and Lent before in my mind. Never has it occurred to me that fasting could in any way be connected with privilege.

However, the hunger in Syria showed me a different reality.

When we fast, we curtail our consumption of food.  There are two presuppositions here that can easily be overlooked. The person who is fasting has food available, chooses not to consume it but will be able to consume food again once the fast is over. That is simply not the case in many places in Syria.

In humanitarian aid circles it is common to speak of “food security” or, more likely, “food insecurity” and to speak of people, especially children, suffering from malnutrition. These are somewhat technical terms for a much harsher, imminent reality — famine and starvation. In fact, children suffering from severe malnutrition are often children who are also starving to death.

There are natural famines caused by crop failures and there are famines caused by political circumstances and war. It is still famine.

“Those of us who fast must never forget that we can and will end our fast. We will eat again. Millions of people in Syria— especially children — do not have that option.”

Elias D. Mallon, S.A., Ph.D.

The report to the Security Council indicates that Syria is entering its 10th year of war and the humanitarian situation is dire in the extreme. The country’s economy is in crisis. The Syrian pound has lost 75 percent of its value and the price of basic food commodities has gone up 200 percent. Northwest Syria (Idlib) and Northeast Syria (especially al-Hol, a refugee/detention camp for families of ISIS fighters and mostly their children) are centers of the crisis.

 It is estimated that five million children in Syria are suffering from some degree of malnutrition. Because of this, one Syrian child out of eight has stunted growth. In northern Syria there are almost two million displaced children, some of whom have been displaced up to ten times.  Under such conditions, hunger saps their strength and growth, and lack of education saps their hopes for a future.

In all, it was reported to the UNSC that 60 percent of Syrians are lacking sufficient food, some more critically than others but, in any case, more than half the population.

This humanitarian crisis has thrown a different light on how I look on fasting. Fasting, of course, is an important part of Lent and Christian preparation for Easter. It is a holy thing. In my last blog post, we reflected on that and the importance of fasting being connected with works of justice and compassion. At this moment, the view is a bit starker and more disturbing.             

Fasting is a self-imposed disciple. But famine is a curse. Those of us who fast must never forget that we can and will end our fast. We will eat again. Millions of people in Syria — especially children — do not have that option. To put it bluntly: While some fast, others starve.

That we cannot forget.

A Franciscan Friar of the Atonement, Father Elias Mallon is the external affairs officer for CNEWA.

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