As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, a new humanitarian crisis is unfolding. Issam Bishara, our regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt, puts it in context:
In February 2012, Syrian government forces carried out a major attack on Homs. This resulted in the deaths of over 700 inhabitants, including women and children, and led to the widespread condemnation by world governments and various non-governmental organizations. On 29 February, the Free Syrian Army withdrew in a strategic retreat from Homs, in order to save the civilians still in the Baba Amr district.
During the past few days, some 2,000 Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, many of them from Homs, and particularly its opposition stronghold of Baba Amr. The majority of them, being Sunni, found refuge in border villages where they have relatives and mainly in the cluster of Wadi Khaled in Akkar-North Lebanon and in the East Bekaa border, in a no man’s land area called “Al Masharih.”
As for the Christian population: according to both Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, the superior general of the Good Shepherd congregation and Father Eliane Nasrallah, a good friend of CNEWA and the Greek Catholic parish priest of Al Qaa village (a Lebanese village located on the eastern border with Syria), the majority of the Christian families of Homs and the surrounding villages left during the escalations and found refuge in three areas:
- The Valley of Christians (inside Syria). It’s around 60 kms away from Homs on the international road between Homs and Tartous, which is a popular tourist site in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border. Most people in the area are Christians (Greek Orthodox, in particular.)
- The coastal city of Tartous (inside Syria). The Sisters of the Good Shepherd screened around 150 Syrian Christian families who escaped from Homs and found refuge in that area in addition to around 50 families who found shelter in Damascus.
- The Lebanese village of Al Qaa. Father Nasrallah says that at present 40 Christian families found refuge at their relatives’ homes within his parish. After visiting a majority of them, he reported that all of them are needy and living in very difficult conditions.
All displaced Christian families are struggling with severe weather. They are without power and basic necessities. They need emergency assistance such as food, foam mattresses, blankets, heating fuel and medications.
Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon — which took place against the backdrop of a civil war — could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians, and have only been exacerbated by the death of more than 200 Christians in Homs as a result of the violence in the area, where the only victims have been civilians. It was reported that Christian residents of Hamidiya had been stopped from leaving Homs by anti-government forces, and were forced to evacuate their homes in the mosque to use them as human shields for protection against government troops. Further, the Virgin Mary Church, one of the oldest churches dating back to the early Christian era, was attacked by terrorists on 24-25 February. The surrounding commercial area, mainly owned by Christians, was also attacked. The same pattern that emerged in Iraq is now playing out in Syria: Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians.
At present, the priority of the local church is to help the displaced Christian families in Lebanon and inside Syria. Displaced Muslims are supported by Muslim NGO’s (mostly religious and Salafi institutions) and are receiving substantial funds from Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Christians are finding refuge with Christian communities where none of the Arab aid is available. The church is their only hope.
CNEWA is in the process of raising funds to assist some 260 families inside Syria and in Lebanon in coordination with Caritas Lebanon, which has already started providing some necessary items such as blankets to some families, regardless of religious affiliation. Click here to help!
It is worth mentioning: the Lebanese government has adopted a policy of remaining unbiased to the conflict in Syria. Accordingly, it is allowing demonstrations and free speech for both sides, without discrimination.