Christians in the chaos of Syria

Action Chrétienne en Orient has been based in Aleppo, Syria since 1922. Every year, this association publishes a newspaper bearing witness to their actions and the experience of Christians in the East, mainly in Syria and Lebanon. This year, in number 105 of the newspaper "Le Levant", the history of the Christians of Syria is explained to us, documented and informed by those living there. We offer you an overview of this file in order to understand the difficult situation of Christians in Syria and, by extension, in the Middle East.

THEAction Chrétienne en Orient (ACO) was created on December 6, 1922 by the Alsatian pastor Paul BERRON. Following the persecutions of Christians and the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, refugees are flocking in large numbers to Aleppo. It is to help these refugees that ACO missionaries have been working since 1922 in Aleppo, Syria and then in Lebanon. Building on this history of ACO's presence for 94 years in the Middle East, this year's dossier, published in December 2016: "Christians in the chaos of Syria" shares with us the experience of Syrian Christians and the current tragedy that Syria is going through.

The Syrian conflict is certainly complex but it is also multiple, as Thomas Wild, secretary general of the ACO, explains in a summarized chronology:

“In fact, there is a superposition of three conflicts:
An internal conflict between a very authoritarian government and opponents who would like to overthrow it.
A more general conflict between a Sunni axis (Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar) and the Shiite axis (Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran, which militarily support the Syrian regime).
An international conflict, with the presence of people of 83 nationalities, the intervention of Russia, the USA, France, England… ”

One could say that the Christians of the East are the collateral victims of this conflict without being involved in it. We will see this a bit further in this article.

"Very early in the Syrian situation, external factors appeared alongside the actors"

With the Arab Spring from Tunisia to Syria in 2011, the demands shared (need for reforms, freedom and social justice) by all the people of these countries seemed free and democratic; but very quickly religious questions, the place of Islam, its concept in public life became "Very early on the main subject, which would influence all events in one way or another". In Syria, a country considered secular, "Everyone's religion is respected but is not a subject that divides society", unlike other Arab countries. "Very early in the Syrian situation, external factors appeared alongside the actors" of this revolution, which were initially intended to be peaceful. The events in Iraq, the disorder, facilitated the emergence of Daesh which also came to establish itself in Syria, by proclaiming its caliphate. From there, the Christian community became aware of "The threat which weighed on its present and its future". The choice offered to Christians in certain regions has become: "Convert to Islam, leave the country or be killed." "

“Many Christians have been killed or kidnapped, their homes have been destroyed, they have lost their livelihoods, priests have been killed or kidnapped… Christian churches have been destroyed, and Christian institutions have been attacked, even old people. Christian monasteries and historic sites were targeted. »Writes Mary Mikhael ex-president of NEST, School of theology of the Near East in Beirut« But we must stay in the truth and say that many Muslims were also killed ».

From that moment on, the number of displaced people and refugees inside and outside Syria exploded. More than half of the Syrian population has had to leave their homes. IDPs are estimated to be between 7 and 10 million, according to UNHCR, and there are 4,6 million people who have fled Syria, including 1,06 million in Lebanon alone (population, 4,2 million) . The ACO Fellowship is present in Lebanon, it helps these refugees with its partners. It helps refugees in “safer” places in Syria such as Homs, where it relies on the structures it already supported before this war. She is still present in Aleppo where she continues to work with the Church of Christ, Pastor Bchara Moussa Oghli, continuing her pastoral and medical work towards the often desperate population. She also began to support the Armenian Evangelical Parish of Baghdad in Iraq. In this issue of the newspaper "Le Levant" are described the actions of ACO which are difficult on the ground as the situation is precarious and which also try to educate the children in the middle of this chaos.

“The terrible war made us stronger! "

Beyond this aid, the ACO supports the Middle East School of Theology (NEST) This school located in Beirut, directed in the tradition of the Reformation, by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and the Union Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East serve the entire Middle East. And the question of knowing "What has changed in our life of faith following the experience of the conflict in Syria" is asked. As Mgr Boutros Marayati, Archbishop of Aleppo of the Armenian Catholics testified during a conference on March 5, 2016 in Valence (Drôme), the Syrian pastors noted that “ The terrible war made us stronger! »

“In the end, I learned not to panic anymore, I learned not to quit because I have managerial responsibilities, I learned not to blame, because now is not the time to seek Knowing who is at fault is the time to ask what is the next thing to do. I have learned to accept help because I am not perfect. I learned what it means to depend entirely on God… ”
Pastor Ibrahim Nseir in charge of the parish of the Arab Synod in Aleppo. (His church was blown up twice)

If these Christians seem to support Bashar El Assad, it is above all because of the stability that allowed everyone to live their faith peacefully.

Yet one can wonder why so much suffering and why the Syrian Christians foreign to this internal conflict are thus pursued, looted, killed by Islamist terrorists. If these Christians seem to support Bashar El Assad, it is above all because of the stability which allowed everyone to live their faith peacefully, whether it came from Islam or Christianity. In fact, one of the reasons put forward in this dossier dates back to the crusades of the “Christian West”. From the Western interventions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, tension rose towards Christians in the Middle East. And at the time of the US invasion of Iraq, Christians were seen to be part of this “Christian West”. Foreign intervention in Syria (and in Iraq as well as in Libya) only reinforced this fatal Islamist "opinion" for Christians while they lived in peace with their neighbors. Should we see here the reason why Western governments are struggling to support Eastern Christians?

All these questions are addressed in this ACO file, but it remains to find a solution that can bring peace, reconciliation and forgiveness so that Syria, it is the wish of the majority of the Syrian people, that he is Christian or not, can find his living together destroyed by this war.

Nathanael Bechdolff

Find out more by visiting the websiteChristian Association in the East

See also the moving text of a pastor of Aleppo, after 6 years of devastation

Photo credit : Homs, April 2016, © Thomas Wild with kind permission

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