Syrian Christians, building cemeteries instead of schools
Damascus, Syria, Oct 28, 2014 / 12:04 am (CNA/EWTN News) - As the civil war in Syria continues its fourth year, Christians who remain in the country’s capital are finding it harder just to get by – even with the help of the Maronite local Church.
“The number of people taking the sacraments is falling from year to year – very sharply,” Samir Nassar, Maronite Archbishop of Damascus told Aid to the Church in Need Oct. 24, explaining that he is unable to keep track of how many of his faithful have fled Syria. “In 2012 there were more baptisms and weddings than in 2013. The number of funerals, on the other hand, is rising.”
“There were previous plans to build a kindergarten or a school, but now we are planning for the enlargement of the Christian cemetery.” Archbishop Nassar added, “you can die any number of ways in Damascus.”
Whether it is from snipers, shelling, or malnutrition, Archbishop Nassar said Damascenes are very much at risk in their daily lives.
“For instance, you can be shot by a sniper or blown up by car bombs. And of course there are the shells. Then again, you can die from lack of medical care if you are injured. The hospitals no longer have sufficient supplies of medicines.”
Though international attention has shifted from the Syrian civil war as a whole, to the rise of the Islamic State in both Iraq and northern Syria, Syrians throughout the country still face extreme hardships.
Although the Maronite Archeparchy of Damascus is trying to help individuals and families who remain, it is very difficult because of the toll the war has taken on the country.
“The economy is dead. The people have no work. Inflation is rising. Our currency is rapidly losing value against the dollar,” Archbishop Nassar said.
In March 2011, when Syria's civil war began, around 50 Syrian pounds could be exchanged for one U.S. dollar. Now, the exchange rate is 164 Syrian pounds for every U.S. dollar.
“Gradually everyone is becoming poor,” the Maronite prelate reflected. “People have used up their savings. They all need help.”
Damascenes can buy food, he said, but only canned goods and imperishables such as rice or lentils. “What's lacking is fresh foodstuffs, like vegetables, cheese and meat. The problem is also that you have to keep fresh food in cold storage because of the heat. But unfortunately we have problems with the power supply.”
The Maronite Archeparchy of Damascus is supporting between 300 and 400 Christian families, the bishop said, who explained the difficulties – being robbed or kidnapped – that come with getting aid to these families.
“But we have to take this risk. Otherwise our people will leave. We've already been forced to close down three parishes because the faithful have left. So if we don't help the few that remain, there will no longer be a Church in Damascus.”
With the Syrian government unable to help, the eparchy is putting its efforts towards helping those who remain by supporting families and the elderly.
“The family is basically the only intact institution. It's the family which helps, shares and supports. People’s identification with their families is very pronounced. Without the family, the situation would be an utter and complete disaster.”
He added that “we as a Church are at the moment doing more social work than pastoral work, as we are trying to to alleviate the people's distress. There is no other help available.”
Despite the dismal situation, Archbishop Nassar said this period of war has marked a “definite return to the faith.”
“They have nothing left but faith …people are praying a lot more. The churches stay open longer. Many of the faithful go there to pray in silence, often for hours on end.”
“At the end of Mass they make a point of saying goodbye, because they don't know whether they will see one another the next day.”
The Syrian conflict began when demonstrations sprang up nationwide on March 15, 2011 protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria's president and leader the country's Ba'ath Party.
In April of that year, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.
Since then, the violence has morphed into a civil war which has claimed the lives of more than 191,000 people.
There are 3 million Syrian refugees in nearby countries, most of them in Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan. An additional 6.5 million Syrian people are believed to have been internally displaced by the war.
Archbishop Nassar said that “in the beginning everybody was afraid of the fighting, the bombs and the missiles. Now we've got used to it. Life must go on.”