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In the midst of unspeakable violence

Fighting in Syria threatens Christian community, creates acute humanitarian aid needs

August 28, 2012

LOUISVILLE

More than 1.5 million Syrians are seeking refuge both inside and outside Syria’s borders from the spreading civil war that has brought violence and bloodshed to virtually every part of the country.

Many of those fleeing are Christians, says the Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf region and an associate general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches.

“It looks like it is going to be a long war” because no one is giving up, Tomeh says, confirming what Fadi Dagher, general secretary of the National Evangelical (Presbyterian) Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), told Presbyterian News Service in a July interview.

With the ever-growing number of displaced people and refugees as a result of the Syrian civil war, “there will be more need for help,” says Tomeh, again echoing Dagher’s earlier remarks.

The internal conflict began in spring 2011 and revolves around Syrians’ discontent with the long-ruling Ba’ath Party and the leadership of Bashar al-Assad. Fighting between opposition groups and others has led to numerous deaths and scores of people fleeing for safety.

Islamic extremists who have joined the fray have reportedly attacked Christian communities as well as government forces in some parts of the country.

The PC(USA), which has been active in the region for many years, has come alongside its local partners since the unrest began. A financial appeal was made through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), and a “solidarity grant” was sent to the NESSL to help it respond to immediate needs of communities impacted by the conflict.

The PC(USA) General Assembly in July also spoke to the situation in Syria, voting to “stand with the Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, our partner church, and other churches who are facing unprecedented challenges now and are attempting to respond through new forms of witness.”

The GA resolution also called for a negotiated settlement to the Syrian conflict, non-intervention by “all outside parties,” and “full, public congressional debate of any potential U.S. military intervention …to examine carefully the possible humanitarian benefits, costs and outcomes of such intervention, including its impacts on the Syrian people…”

“The situation in Syria is very complex,” says Sara Lisherness, director of the Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries of the PC(USA). “We have issued a second appeal, calling on the church to pray for an end of the violence. We are also asking for financial support to respond to the rapidly increasing needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been forced from their homes and communities.

Among the things that make the Syrian situation dire is the mass exodus taking place. Tomeh says whole communities have been destroyed in some cases, forcing residents out of their homes.

Many private businesses have closed, so people have lost their jobs. They are without incomes, so basic relief supplies are needed, both for those who are in displacement camps and those who have gone to stay with relatives.

Lebanon alone has received about 25,000 refugees. Supplies such as food, medicine, clothes and fuel are what is needed — and winter is on its way, Tomeh says.

According to a recent CBS interview with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, about 145,000 people have come across the country’s border into refugee camps, creating an emergency for Jordan’s economic system.

The Western press is not talking about the economic impact of this flight, which Lisherness says is massive.  Homes and jobs are gone, she points out. People “have had to pick up and flee with little more than the clothes on their backs.”

Family and friends who are receiving the displaced are struggling to absorb them as well, and churches in these neighboring countries are under strain to respond.

“When I visited my mother in Syria I was astonished at how many families host other families despite their own needs,” says Mary Mikhael, former president of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. “Many churches are involved in relief work, helping the displaced even with limited resources.”

A number of the displaced women Mikhael has encountered speak of the lack of basics and of high prices for what is available. “Indeed the future seems dark for all of us,” she says. Yet at the same time the women say they would stay hungry in order to achieve peace, security and hope for their children.

Tomeh says others along with the church are aiding in the relief effort, including non-governmental organizations and government entities. ACT Alliance (Action by Churches Together), in which the PC(USA) is a member through PDA, has issued an appeal for financial support and is applying that support on the ground through the International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC).

Working in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, the IOCC is providing assistance with humanitarian needs and protection; health awareness and psychosocial support; education; and shelter and employment. Tomeh says the various entities “are all trying to help.”

“There is a palpable sense of urgency and people are worried about the growing violence throughout the country,” says Mark Ohanian, IOCC director of programs. “The situation remains unstable and we know that there are at least a million and a half people within the country who are in need of essential food and other assistance including those who have been displaced and others who have been trapped in their homes. Despite the humanitarian efforts underway, hundreds of thousands of people require immediate food assistance in order to survive.”

Ongoing PC(USA) support of humanitarian relief efforts in Syria and other impacted countries will be channeled through the ACT Alliance, which recently updated its appeal as the war drags on and the IOCC assesses additional need.

Lisherness stresses that people need to remember that whole communities are being displaced by the violence. “Ordinary people are forced to leave their communities, their homes, their jobs,” she says.

“It is a tragedy of immense proportion. It impacts people from all walks of life, but especially the Christian community and other minorities in the region. We pray for the end to this conflict, we pray for our sisters and brothers, we pray for peace, even in the midst of this unspeakable violence.”

Presbyterians wishing to contribute to PDA’s humanitarian aid efforts in Syria may do so through regular church channels, online, or by phone by calling 800-872-3283. Note designated account DR000081 and specify “Syria relief.”  Contributors may also text PDA to 20222 to donate $10.

Toya Richards is a freelance writer in Louisville and a third-year M.Div. student at  Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She produced this story at the request of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance

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