Situation Report Aleppo — Syria

A. Historic background of the Christian population in Aleppo:

In 1901, the total population of Aleppo was 108,143 and included 76,329 (70.58 percent) Muslims; 24,508 (22.66 percent) Christians, mostly Catholics; and 7,306 (6.76 percent) Jews.

Aleppo’s large Christian population swelled with the influx of Armenian, Assyrian and Syriac Christians during the early 20th century and after the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in Ottoman Turkey. After the arrival of the first groups of Armenian refugees (1915-1922) the population of Aleppo in 1922 counted 156,748: 97,600 (62.26 percent) Muslims; 22,117 (14.11 percent) native Christians, mostly Catholics;6,580 (4.20 percent) Jews; 2,652 (1.70 percent) Europeans; 20,007 (12.76 percent) Armenian refugees; and 7,792 (4.97 percent) from a number of other groups.

With the withdrawal of French troops from the Turkish region of Cilicia in 1923, Aleppo’s Armenian population swelled to 210,000 by 1925. Some 40,000 Armenians found refuge in the city and accounted for more than a quarter of its population.

At present, Aleppo is the most populous city in Syria, with a population of 2,132,100 as indicated in the official census of 2004. More than 250,000 Christians live there, accounting for some 12 percent of the total population. A significant number of the Syrian Christians in Aleppo speak the Armenian language and originated from the city of Urfa in Turkey. The city’s Christian community is diverse and includes a significant number of Armenian Apostolic Christians and Greek and Syriac Orthodox communities. There is also a strong presence of Catholics, including Armenian, Chaldean, Latin, Maronite, Melkite Greek and Syriac Catholics.

B. Current situation

The uprising against the Syrian government began on 15 March 2011, with nationwide demonstrations. However, the inhabitants of Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, remained largely uninvolved in the anti-government protests. In fact, the two cities have seen rallies in the tens of thousands in support of Assad and his government.

As the government launched crackdowns and military sieges into restive towns and cities, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion. Opposition forces composed of military defectors and civilian volunteers clashed with security forces across the country. However, Aleppo remained relatively peaceful.

Fighting in Aleppo governorate began on 10 February 2012. Over the next five months, major clashes left large parts of the rural countryside under rebel control, with the capital of the province, Aleppo, still being firmly under government control. However, on 19 July, rebel forces stormed the city and a battle for control of Syria’s largest city and economic hub had begun.

In late July 2012, Aleppo was the center of the conflict, following the expulsion of opposition armed rebels by government forces from Damascus. Government troops operated from a military base on the south of the city while the Free Syrian Army were strongest in eastern Aleppo, rounding up and executing prominent supporters of Bashar al Assad and pro-regime activists. Local police stations in the city were a focus of conflict.

As a result of the severe battle, many sections in Al Madina Souq such as the Great Mosque of Aleppo and other medieval buildings in the ancient city were destroyed or burned in late summer.

At the beginning of the Battle of Aleppo, rebels reported to have between 6,000 and 7,000 fighters within 18 battalions, the largest one being the al Taweed brigade, a brigade largely dominated by conservative Muslims, headed by defected colonel Abdul al Oqaidi. In addition to the Free Syrian Army, there is a smaller group called the Syrian Liberation Army composed largely of local civilians who have taken up arms against the Syrian army. Islamic extremists and foreign fighters have joined the fighting in Aleppo. Many of them are highly experienced and come from neighboring Iraq, a country with an ongoing insurgency. Jihadists have been reported to also come from several countries across the Muslim world. Although their numbers are low, their presence worries rebel commanders and the international community, who fear sectarian violence. Jacques Bérès, a French surgeon, who treated wounded fighters in Aleppo, reported that he noticed a significant number of foreign fighters, most of whom had Islamist goals. Some of the fighters included Libyans, Chechens and some Frenchmen.

The Kurdish areas in Aleppo are mainly under the control of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has cold relations with the regime and the rebels.

C. The situation of Christian population in Aleppo:

In Aleppo, several areas have a Christian and Armenian majority, such as the old Christian quarter of Jdeydeh. Modern Christian districts include Aziziyeh, Suleimaniyeh, Gare de Baghdad, Ourubeh and Meydan. There are 45 operating churches in the city.

The Christians in the city fear the possible oppression and expulsion under Islamists; some support the Army and have formed their own militias to fight the rebels after the capture of their quarters by the special forces of the Syrian Army. The Armenians have also supported the Syrian Army. Aleppo’s Armenians claim that Turkey supports the FSA (Free Syrian Army) in order to attack Armenians. Arab Christians and Armenian militia number some 150 fighters.

On 23 August, government forces reportedly recaptured three Christian neighborhoods in the Old City from the rebels, according to several residents. The districts of Jdeydeh, Tela and Suleimaniyeh were captured by opposition forces five days before. One resident claimed the takeover by the Syrian Army was celebrated by hundreds of residents, who began to set up popular committees to avoid a potential return of the rebels. The military recapture was later confirmed. However, it was disclosed that the recapture of the Jdeydeh quarter from Islamist rebels was initially started by the Christian residents, who took up arms after the rebels had set up checkpoints and fired on the churches and residents.

What’s next:

Despite the unprecedented organizational scale and ambition of the rebels fighting in Aleppo, holding the city for an extended period of time will be difficult. The government has demonstrated its willingness to employ overwhelming and indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment in order to root out rebel forces from occupied districts.

The current status quo is expected to last few months and to be transformed into a military stalemate. Many of the city’s Christians live in neighborhoods close to each other — Suleimaniyeh, Aziziyeh, Villas, Telefon Hawaii, Al Jabiriyah, Meydan, Al Surian, and Al Tilal — are currently under the control of the regular Syrian army. But they are targeted by rebel snipers and artillery from neighboring districts. The bombings are sometimes blind, without a purpose, and this causes severe damage and claims many innocent victims.

Humanitarian situation of the Christians:

According to the Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Antoine Audo: “In some areas, Christians have fled their homes because of the threat of bombs, they have lost their livelihoods; schools, hospitals and other public services do not function. There is chaos,” he said.

“Eighty percent of people have no jobs and have no option but to stay at home. Poverty is getting very serious, especially with rising prices and no salaries. The face of the city has changed. There is no security, everything is dirty, there are difficulties in basic travel, no taxis, no buses.”

“Those who remain in Aleppo are only the poor families. We are fearful that Christianity will decline and will lose influence as it has done over the past decade in neighboring Iraq,” he said.

D. Pontifical Mission’s intervention:

So far, the military situation as shown in the map attached above is making access to Aleppo very difficult, because the roads leading to the city are cut and the road from the airport has been transformed into a demarcation line.

However, CNEWA’s Pontifical Mission personnel are in regular contact with three partners who are active on the ground in helping the displaced families. Securing additional resources regularly for these partners is a priority:

  • Bishop Boulos Yaziji, Greek Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo, was recently elected as president or coordinator of an emergency committee formed by the council of all church leaders in the city to help the Christians displaced within the city.
  • Father Jules Baghdassarian, the national director of Oeuvre Pontificale Missionaire, or O.P.M., who is very active in helping the displaced families. He has his headquarters in the basement of Saint Dmitri Church in Aleppo, and has some 34 volunteers helping him.Father Jules has been able to register around 1,450 needy displaced families from all confessions. He has started a food distribution program from the basement of the church, with a new system based on distributing vouchers to families who should come to the center and pick up whatever they need within the limitation of the voucher. Thus far, he has been able to help around 300 families.
  • The Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS) are present in Aleppo under the leadership of Father Mourad Abou Seif.

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