Three prominent Christian leaders in Syria issued a joint letter Tuesday calling for an end to sanctions against Syria, which they say are unjustly preventing vital aid from reaching the people most affected by the devastating earthquake that struck the region earlier this week. 

The Feb. 7 letter was signed by the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef I, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X. 

“This natural disaster adds to the ordeal of the Syrian people, who continue to suffer from the tragedies of war, crises, disasters, epidemics, and the harsh economic hardships resulting from inflation, the absence of indispensable materials, medications, and daily basic necessities needed in order for people to survive and live in dignity,” the leaders wrote. 

“We, the three patriarchs with the heads of churches in Syria, demand from the United Nations and the countries imposing sanctions on Syria to lift the embargo and unjust sanctions imposed on the Syrian people, and to take exceptional measures and immediate initiatives to secure the delivery of the much-needed relief and humanitarian aid.”

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) also recently called for an end to sanctions against Syria. 

“We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity,” the religious leaders wrote in a Feb. 6 statement

According to the latest available estimates as of midday Wednesday, the 7.8-magnitude quake ​​has left at least 11,600 people dead in Turkey and Syria, the New York Times reported. In Syria, which has been ravaged by more than a decade of civil war, countless buildings collapsed Feb. 6, including several Catholic churches, reported ACI MENA, CNA’s Arabic-language partner agency. 

In Syria’s Idlib province, which borders Turkey, some 4.1 million people required humanitarian assistance even before the February earthquake, according to the United Nations. According to the Washington Post, assistance to that region is hampered by restrictions imposed by the Syrian government, which disallows some international organizations from accessing the area. In addition, there is only one border crossing open to the region from Turkey, which causes a bottleneck for aid. 

Many cities and towns with a significant Christian population in Syria, such as Aleppo, Homs, Lattakia, and Hama, suffered major damage. In Aleppo, several UNESCO World Heritage sites were damaged, including the citadel of the old city. Many international Catholic aid agencies, such as Caritas, Catholic Relief Services, and Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) are soliciting donations, mobilizing resources, and coordinating relief efforts. 

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The United States has imposed various sanctions on the Syrian government since the start of the country’s 2011 civil war, citing widely documented human rights abuses perpetrated by President Bashar Al-Assad against his own people. 

The latest slate of sanctions, which came into force in 2020, is known as the Caesar Act and seeks to “compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful coexistence with its neighbors.” Various EU and other countries have imposed similar sanctions. 

Although the Caesar Act contains language exempting humanitarian aid from the sanctions, humanitarian advocates have said that aid is often hampered because of “over-compliance” on the part of banks and other actors because of the aid’s connection to Syria, according to November 2022 testimony by a U.N.-appointed expert. 

“Numerous international and local organizations have expressed serious concerns about the high costs of operations, including due to sanctions-induced rising prices in fuel and the challenges to financial transactions, procurement, and delivery of goods and services,” reported Alena Douhan, a Belarusian professor of international law, to the U.N. 

“They report that foreign banks are often reluctant to process payments destined for Syria, particularly following Lebanon’s banking crisis and the spillover effects on Syria. Restrictions and delays in processing payments with suppliers, which can take months, lead to a restricted and less competitive market, rising costs, putting at risk the implementation of lifesaving humanitarian interventions. I have received information that important international humanitarian actors have either significantly reduced their activities or fully withdrew from the country due to these challenges, leaving a serious protection and rehabilitation gap.”

Ninety percent of Syria’s population was living below the poverty line even before the earthquake, with limited access to food, water, electricity, shelter, cooking and heating fuel, transportation, and health care. Al-Assad’s government has often blamed the sanctions for his government’s inability to assist his people.