Assyrians in Lebanon stand in solidarity with their kin

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Samya Kullab| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: A sea of parishioners stood before their priest Sunday morning at the St. Georges Assyrian Church in Jdeideh, hands clasped in prayer for the lives of their kin whose fate in Syria was still uncertain. The priest presiding over Mass made an elegiac call for solidarity as members of the Syriac Union Party, a political entity representing Assyrians in Lebanon, stood outside the church gate collecting donations meant for families fleeing the carnage in northern Syria.

Women clad in black scarves flooded the aisles and embraced, their menfolk looking on. “God help them,” one cried.

“What is happening to our community is very painful,” said Father George Safar, the priest of the Jdeideh church.

Last week a Syrian activist group reported that at least 220 Assyrian Christians were abducted from their homes by ISIS in villages along the Khabour River in Hassakeh province, where the community had a significant presence. The area, comprising 11 villages, was reclaimed by the extremist group from Kurdish forces last month. The mass kidnapping has exhorted the Assyrian community in Lebanon to act; many of them have relatives in the Syrian province who were killed, kidnapped or forced to flee.

“We are passing a difficult time,” Syriac Orthodox Bishop of Mount Lebanon and Tripoli George Saliba told The Daily Star. “They are part of our nation, and we are doing what we can for them.”

Hundreds of Assyrians marched in Downtown Beirut over the weekend in solidarity with their abducted brethren, chanting slogans in their native Aramaic and carrying signs that read: “Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia,” “We demand action from the United Nations,” and “Save the Christians of the Middle East.”

The Assyrian presence in Lebanon was marked by two waves, first during the 1970s and after the 2011 Syrian uprising, according to community leaders. The exact population in Lebanon is undocumented, but formal estimates put the number between 30,000-50,000. Considered a minority in Lebanon, the community does not have formal representation in the Parliament, a reality the Syriac Union Party has been lobbying to change for years.

The Interior Ministry had instructed General Security Wednesday evening to facilitate the entry of Assyrian refugees fleeing Hassakeh to Lebanon, considering their plight an exceptional humanitarian case, a ministry source told The Daily Star.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk had discussed the matter with Prime Minister Tammam Salam and Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas, and formally gave the order to allow the inflow of Assyrians to Lebanon, at a time when the government was tightening entry restrictions for Syrian nationals seeking entry.

According to the president of the Syriac Union Party, Ibrahim Mrad, about 500 Assyrians arrived to Lebanon in recent days, entering either from the Masnaa border or the Abboudieh crossing in the north.

“When the kidnapping happened the community here were afraid for the safety of their loved ones, because we were hearing ISIS was using them as human shields,” he said.

The majority who fled Khabour have settled in Qamishli, near the Turkish border, and the city of Hassakeh, where fighting is at a minimum for the time being, Mrad said.

Kino, the nom du guerre of a senior member of the Syriac Military Council, the armed wing of the Syriac Union Party protecting Assyrian-populated areas in northeast Syria in cooperation with Kurdish forces, told The Daily Star refugees would likely seek asylum in Iraq or Turkey rather than Lebanon, which is further away.

“Right now ISIS controls the northern basin of the Khabour, and an advance to the city of Hassakeh is unlikely,” he said, describing the Feb. 23 attack on the town as a “surprise” which caught the Syriac militia unawares.

“Their numbers were too many,” he said.

State Minister Nabil de Freij has also been working behind the scenes to expedite the entry process for Assyrian refugees, paying visits to both Machnouk and General Security chief Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, accompanied by Assyrian community leader in Lebanon Bishop Yatron Guliano.

De Freij told Al-Mustaqbal newspaper that border control had been notified about the ministry decision, adding that at least 5,000 Assyrians are expected to come to Lebanon and will likely stay with relatives or in homes provided by their church.

Mrad held a meeting with Lebanese Christian parties Friday, including the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces, and formed a committees to oversee relief work in coordination with the Assyrian Church.

“More important than food is finding a place for them to stay,” he said. “The rent in Lebanon is very high.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 02, 2015, on page 4.
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