Testimonies from a war zone: Syrian Christians share stories

May 18, 2013 by  
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First-hand accounts from Syrian Christians whom Barnabas International Director, Patrick Sookhdeo met last week in Lebanon.

The war in Syria has left many children traumatisedSyria, May 16, 2013: A tragedy of unbelievable proportions is unfolding in Syria. The Christians believe they are the meat in the sandwich, squeezed between the rebel forces with their extremist Islamist allies and the government forces. They are caught in the middle of a conflict not of their making. Increasingly the rebel forces are deliberately targeting them. When the al-Nusra Front takes an area, they systematically destroy all Christian symbols. The Christians are faced now with a disaster that is leading many of them to question whether the Church will survive in Syria. Many see this as Iraq Mark 2. Just as the Christians of Iraq were ethnically cleansed, with Western acquiescence, so today Western countries are supporting the Gulf States and Turkey who are facilitating the rebel fighters who want to introduce sharia and destroy Christianity.

I have just returned from Lebanon, where Barnabas Fund had brought together a range of Christians from different parts of Syria, each with their own heart-breaking story to tell about how the conflict there is affecting them and those for whom they care. Among the accounts I heard were: a woman who is too afraid to leave her home to go to work for fear of being raped; courageous and creative church leaders who are working tirelessly to help meet the needs of their splintered congregations; analyses from a journalist and a senior politician, in particular of the potential consequences for Christians.

I want to share with you some of the testimonies that paint a picture of what life is like for Syrian Christians trapped in this war zone. To protect their security, I have not included their names. The following story reveals the terrifying reality for Christian women, whom Islamist militants within the opposition believe they have the right to rape:

I am a working woman, I used to work in Damascus. My family lives in Qateena (a Christian village). Throughout the incidents, I used to commute between the two places. One month ago I was in a workshop here and received a phone call from a friend in Aleppo saying, ‘Please pray for us.’ I asked, ‘Why?’ Answer: ‘Because I want to commit suicide. Two of my friends were raped by armed groups and I do not want to be raped as they were.’

All of us at the workshop were shocked and fearful for women in Syria. To fear death is something. To fear rape is something else. I felt I had discovered something in my personality, fear of rape and humiliation, not fear of death.

She went on to explain that she had resigned from her good job in Damascus, where she had no family and feared that someone would break into her home and rape or kill her. Her relatives in Qateena asked why she had left her job and come back to live with them. She told them that if she has to die, she would like to be with her family; she did not want to die alone. She said that many women have left their jobs in the last two years because they do not dare to go outside their homes. She continued:
During these two years we have felt more repressed and marginalised… It is becoming worse and worse for women.
She said that in certain areas of Homs that are completely Sunni, she has been advised by friends, and sometimes officials, to cover up. Christian women are concerned that the freedoms they have enjoyed under the Assad regime will be stripped away if the Islamists among the rebels achieve their ultimate goal of establishing an Islamic state in Syria.

TRAUMATISED CHILDREN

The lives of Christian children in Syria are also being ravaged. Many are traumatised by the violence and destruction that surrounds them. They will need specialised counselling to help heal these psychological wounds, but this kind of intervention is barely possible while the fighting rages on and it is a struggle to merely survive.

In the meantime, churches are planning special activities for children, designed to help alleviate some of the stress that they are suffering.

Christian parents too are in a state of anguish. They tend to have small families with just one or two children and are very fearful that their precious little ones may be killed. Mothers are therefore stopping their children from going to school and church, keeping them at home where they feel they are safer.

POVERTY BITES

Christians are finding it increasingly difficult to provide for their families owing to displacement, unemployment and soaring prices. Those who were formerly well-off, such as lawyers, doctors and engineers are now requesting charitable aid.

A number of church leaders spoke of these difficulties. One from Aleppo described the plight of a group of Christians from a very poor area who had been forced to flee when all the houses and shops were looted and burned. They are staying in crowded conditions in school classrooms. He said:

The poorest have no income because most of the factories were destroyed, so the daily workers have no work… They live in misery. They only have aid given to them from NGOs and charities. A gas cylinder used to be US$5, now it is only available on the black market and costs US$25.

One daily meal for a family of four people, which is only bread and houmous, beans and tomatoes etc., now costs US$5 and they cannot afford it. So a family needs at least US$150 a month to get one meal a day and not cover any other expenses… We have so many beggars on the streets of Aleppo, especially children and teenagers. We fear they will be used for non-ethical purposes, exploited by others.”

The church leader went on to describe the deteriorating state of the city:

Most of the buildings in Aleppo have been destroyed. Many homes have become cemeteries, with their inhabitants buried within them by explosions. The old city of Aleppo is totally destroyed.

It is so difficult to communicate, no more cell phones, post office, internet, electricity. We don’t even have people to remove the rubbish, there is no diesel to power their machines. It stays for weeks and causes a lot of problems. Some volunteers remove and burn it, but it is not enough. Some of the Christian volunteers try to help clean the areas. There are so many diseases in Aleppo today because of heat and rubbish. It is very dangerous.

CHURCH DESTROYED AND DESECRATED

While some of the suffering that Christians in Syria are undergoing is the same as everyone else who is trapped in this nightmare, they are facing the added trauma of their community being systematically attacked by the opposition, who perceive them as supporters of the regime.

Churches and Christian symbols continue to be deliberately destroyed. Fighters have even desecrated one church by urinating inside it.

Their very lives are also under threat as mortar bombs and snipers target Christian areas in what effectively amounts to a campaign of ethnic cleansing. The violence is driving Christians out of places where they had lived peacefully for generations.

Almost all of the 60,000-strong Christian population of Homs has fled but 75 Christians, many of them elderly, are being held in the Hamadiya neighbourhood by the rebels as a human shield. Hardship and deprivation are killing them one by one.

Understandably a large number of Christian families – an estimated 25,000 – have fled the country, and many more are looking for an escape route. It is feared that the war could result in the eradication from Syria of the Christian presence, which dates back to the days of the early Church. As one of our partners, who is delivering aid from Barnabas Fund to needy Christian families, put it:

How can people go back and live again with people who have used their churches as a toilet? Will they really go back home again? History teaches us no… When you leave your home, someone else takes it and you cannot go back again.

LOVING ONE ANOTHER

In the midst of such desperation, however, I was heartened to hear about the inspirational efforts of the Christian community to care for each other in their hour of need. In Homs, a large group of young people is working hard, distributing aid, including food, blankets and heaters, from Barnabas Fund to around 1,400 families.

Also in Homs, a Christian care home for the elderly persisted in its ministry even when all other institutions in the city had stopped operating. I was told that this was because of the insistence of the 82-year-old female Christian worker who is in charge there.

Church leaders are coming up with creative ideas for income-generation projects to help more displaced Christian families become self-sufficient in their new homes as need increases and resources run thin. And outreach is continuing. One church held three baptismal services at the end of last month; half of those being baptised were converts from a Muslim background.

These are extremely dark days for Christians in Syria, and they have much to lament. But they are standing together in faith and love, fulfilling the words of Jesus in John 13:35: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

– patrick sookhdeo

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