Smoke rises from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ayn during the Turkish offensive against Kurdish groups in northeastern Syria, Oct. 17, 2019, as seen from Turkey. Credit: Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images. By Courtney Mares
Al-Hasakah, Syria, Oct 17, 2019 / 11:36 am (CNA).- Bishops in Syria and Iraq have called for worldwide prayer as fighting between Turkish and Kurdish forces further destabilizes northern Syria. “We were very concerned when we learned of the Turkish incursion at our borders, for our Christians,” Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo told Vatican News Oct. 14. The archbishop said that the Turkish invasion revives a memory for Christians of the Ottoman occupation of the region. “Our country and our entire region was occupied for four centuries already,” he said. “We hope that finally all the Syrians will unite to liberate the country and give freedom to all people, whether Christians, Kurds or Muslims, so that they can return to live in this country as they did before: all together and with the security that is lacking in past years,” the archbishop said. While US government officials and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are scheduled to meet Oct. 17 in an American effort to pressure Turkey to end the offensive against the Kurds, the humanitarian situation in northern Syria has worsened. Christians civilians have been killed and wounded in Turkey’s bombing of the Syrian towns of Ras al-Ayn and Al-Darbasiyah, which both have large Christian populations, according to In Defence of Christians. Aid groups working in northeastern Syria have begun to pull out of the area, saying that it is becoming too dangerous. More than 100,000 people have been displaced in the past week by the violence, according to the United Nations. Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said that his community is preparing to receive another wave of refugees. “Already in Erbil over the past two years we have witnessed a growing number of Syrian Christian refugees who have sought safety within the Christian community here. We expect that should additional Christians seek to flee conflict in Northeast Syria, most of them would come here to Erbil,” Warda said in a statement Oct. 12. “We pray that the government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the international community would not turn them away, but would help in providing for their care, along with all the other innocents of all faiths,” he said. Archbishop Warda called for all people to pray “at this critical time” for Syria and Iraq, stressing, “minorities will not be able to withstand another serious conflict.” “As the Church, our prayers and hopes are always for an end to this never-ending cycle of violence from all participants. We urge all parties to remember at all times their obligations to protect innocent civilians,” Warda said. US President Donald Trump pledged $50 million in stabilization assistance to ethnic and religious minorities in northeast Syria in an Executive Order Oct. 13. It stated: “the United States condemns the persecution of Christians, and we pledge our support to Christian communities everywhere suffering under the burden of oppression and brutal violence.” Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon Louis Raphael I Sako “appealed to all the Chaldean churches in the world, asking them to pray for a week for peace in Syria and Iraq,” Curial Bishop Basel Yaldo of Babylon said Oct. 16. Bishop Yaldo said that Middle Eastern Christians “are afraid of a return of the Islamic State.” Both Islamic State and al-Qaeda have experienced a resurgence in recent months, regrouping in rural areas, following U.S. disengagement, according to two former Pentagon officials writing in Foreign Affairs. After the fall of the Islamic State caliphate in April, the U.S. cut its troops down by half. The White House announced Oct. 6 that Turkish forces would take over some security responsibilities in northern Syria and that the U.S. would no longer maintain its military forces in the region. The announcement has caused widespread concern among Kurds in northern Syria and Iraq, and some human rights advocates have accused Trump of abandoning Kurdish allies while implicitly sanctioning a Turkish military offensive. After the U.S. announcement, Turkish military forces moved into Syria, with the stated aims of repelling Kurdish forces in Syria perceived to be a threat to Turkish security, and creating a space within Syria in which to house 2 million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey. Amid the conflict, 950 Islamic State supporters escaped from the Ain Issa detention facility, according to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. government announced Oct. 14. sanctions on senior Turkish officials responsible for the offensive in Syria, and the House of Representatives voted Oct. 17 to condemn the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Kurdish-controlled Syria. Pope Francis appealed for dialogue and prayer for Syria in his Angelus address Oct. 13. “My thoughts go once again to the Middle East. In particular, to the beloved and tormented Syria, from which dramatic news arrives again about the fate of the people of the country’s northeast, who are forced to abandon their houses because of military actions,” Pope Francis said.