Do not forget Syria's Christians, priest urges Westerners

Smoke billows skyward as homes and buildings are shelled June 9 2012 in the city of Homs Syria Credit UN Photo David Manyua CNA World Catholic News 7 13 12 Smoke billows skyward as homes and buildings are shelled June 9, 2012 in the city of Homs, Syria. | UN Photo/David Manyua.

A Syrian priest has urged the West to remember the Christians in his country, many of whom are fleeing due to fear of the violence and shortages brought about by the ongoing civil war.

"I appeal to our fellow Christians in Europe and the U.S. not to forget us," Father Ziad Hilal, S.J., told Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity that assists persecuted Christians around the world.

He stressed the need for a peaceful political solution to the war.

"I'm very much afraid that the exodus will continue," he said. "The Christians are an integral part of this country, its culture and history. But if there is not a major change in the situation, it will soon look here like in Iran or Turkey."

He explained that these countries once had "flourishing" Christian communities which have nearly vanished.

"May God spare Syrian Christians the same fate," Fr. Hilal said.

Over 110,000 people have died in the conflict between Syrian rebels, both secularists and Islamists, and the government which began in March 2011. Over two million Syrians have become refugees because of the civil war, and another 4.25 million are internally displaced.

The conflict has had religious repercussions, with some Islamist extremists among the rebels targeting Christian churches and individuals for destruction and murder.

Fr. Hilal heads a social center in a government-controlled area of the Syrian city of Homs. The center supports about 6,000 families. About 6,000 of Homs' 120,000 Christians have fled to other parts of Syria or to neighboring countries. The city's historic center is rebel-controlled and is almost completely abandoned.

The priest has permission from his superior to leave the city, but has chosen to remain with his flock.

"If we go, who will then serve the people?" he asked.

Fr. Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch Jesuit, wrote that conditions in Homs now include food shortages, as no food has entered his area in over 15 months. Heating for survival and for cooking is a major concern as winter nears, with fuel sources dwindling. Running water is unavailable.

What little remains will soon be gone, he fears, and the lack of certainty in the conflict allows little ability to plan. The people are weak and fatigued for lack of food, while disease is spreading.

However, those who remain are still caring for each other.

"There is an atmosphere of love, openness and interaction and those of us who remain feel that we are one group," Fr. van der Lugt said in a letter translated by Aid to the Church in Need.

"It's hard to live in painful circumstances alone, and it is possible that these conditions become harder and harder. Each one of us needs to do more and more to help each other. A person has to pay much attention to the needs of another, to the point of forgetting one's own needs."

He said that the situation in Homs "does not produce optimism," but he nonetheless encouraged others to "help each other to cross this difficult stage, living out solidarity and interdependence in our search for new horizons."

More in Middle East - Africa

In neighboring Lebanon, the Syrian civil war is having a "disastrous effect," Caritas Lebanon president Fr. Simon Faddoul told Aid to the Church in Need.

There are an estimated 1.4 million Syrians in Lebanon, with most having come since the start of the Syrian civil war two years ago. The conflict is causing social and security problems. Economic losses in Lebanon will total $7.4 billion by the end of next year, the World Bank has said.

"The future is somber," said Fr. Faddoul, a Maronite priest. He said any decisive battle over the Syrian capital of Damascus would cause "a refugee disaster."

Fr. Faddoul said that U.S. threats to attack Syria had boosted the number of refugees entering Lebanon, but the absence of these military strikes has somewhat diminished refugee numbers.

Caritas Lebanon has cared for 125,000 refugees, mostly Muslim, though about 10,000 are Christian.

The approaching winter means there is great need for blankets, heating oil, clothing, food, hygiene products, and money for housing.

"Our resources are never enough. But we are doing our best with what we can get."

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Lebanon has no refugee receiving camps, meaning the homeless families are spread across the country.

Sister Georgette Tannoury, a Frenchwoman from the Community of the Good Shepherd, runs a walk-in clinic in Beirut that serves more than 150 Syrians daily, mostly women and children.

"Children fill the streets and run between the cars begging," she said. "We've never experienced so many robberies and other crimes in the country as in the present year."

She reported "increasing frustration" in Lebanon about the refugees, citing one woman who says she is afraid to send her daughter out shopping.

The refugees often live in garages or in rooms with 15 other people. Their children, who lived in large houses at home, rebel against the cramped conditions and prefer to live on the streets.

Sr. Tannoury said that the hardships make refugees desperate.

"One woman told me that her husband had forced her into prostitution to feed the family. Another father had sold his 13-year-old daughter to a 60-year-old man to get money. May God take pity on his people."

Fr. Hilal stressed the need for a peaceful, political solution to the Syrian conflict.

"The use of weapons will not stop the bloodshed in Syria. In this I disagree with America and France," he said, calling for an international peace conference to be convened.

"In Syria itself the government and opposition must start a dialogue. The arms deliveries must also be stopped, as must the infiltration of Syria by jihadists from all over world."

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