Lebanese bishop appeals for Christian Syrian refugees

Thousands of Syrians streamed across a bridge over the Tigris River, entering Iraq on Thursday, August 15, 2013. Credit: UNHCR/G.Gubaeva.

Zahle, Lebanon, Jan 7, 2014 / 02:14 pm (CNA).- Christian refugees from Syria living in Lebanon need the support of their Western counterparts, according to an Eastern Catholic bishop who is himself a native of Syria.

“They live in rented homes, sometimes with multiple families in a single home or a set of rooms … most of these Christian families, however, are in need of the very basics of daily life – food, educational opportunities for their children, medical care,” Archbishop Issam John Darwish of the Melkite Greek Archeparchy of Zahle and Fourzol told the charity Aid to the Church in Need last month.

“Many of them are in bad shape, emotionally and materially – they left everything behind and came here with literally nothing. Jihadist rebels came to them at night and forced them to leave immediately – they are traumatized, because they were unable to mourn and pray for their dead. We try to support them emotionally and financially.”

These refugees are fleeing the now 33-month long Syrian civil war, which has forced 2.3 million Syrians to flee their homes for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and elsewhere.

The war has internally displaced another 6.5 million, and more than 115,000 have died in the violence.

Archbishop Darwish explained that most of the refugees in camps run by the U.N. are Muslim, and that Christian refugees are reluctant to register themselves for benefits out of fear of identification and reprisal.

“They don’t want to be involved whatsoever in the war; they worry that their names will be given either to the Syrian government or the rebels … I don’t believe they have real reason to be afraid, however, and we have tried to help matters by organizing meetings between the families and representatives of the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.”

He explained that he had encouraged the agency to work directly with the Melkite Church, “but officials apparently are not too eager to do so, but we are making some progress.”

There are more than 800,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country home to fewer than 5 million people. Much of the Lebanese population is reluctant to provide new housing to refugees, fearing a sense of permanency.

According to a New York Times report of Dec. 11, the country has banned “box shelters,” housing units of plywood walls and zinc roofs which measure 250 square feet, “regarding them as a threat to this already fragile nation.”

Archbishop Darwish said “we help the poorer Christian families pay their rent,” adding that the archeparchy also tries “to find work for the young men and adults.”

In the Beqaa Valley, where Zahle is located, December brought freezing temperatures along with snow, rain, and high winds. Zahle itself is sheltering 800 Christian refugees.

Zahle is located within 15 miles of the Syrian border, where nationwide demonstrations sprang up March 15, 2011, protesting the rule of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president. That April, the Syrian army began to deploy to put down the uprisings, firing on protesters.

The war is now being fought among the Syrian regime and various rebel groups, including moderates, Islamists, and Kurds.

Archbishop Darwish criticized the characterization of the Syrian uprising as part of an “Arab Spring” which toppled governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

“There is no Arab spring,” he said, “there is no push for democracy – it is a push for theocracy, as we saw with the revolution in Egypt that brought the Muslim Brotherhood into power. Jihadists from all over the world are coming into the region – just consider the various radical factions in Syria, like Al Nusra. So far, the moderate opposition to the old regimes has been weak.”

The archbishop indicated that “Christians have an important role to play” in the establishment of societies open to dialogue in the Middle East, saying, “what we can do is collaborate with moderate Muslims, here in Lebanon, in Syria, and in other countries of the region. Quietly, we have begun doing so, because there definitely are partners for dialogue within the Muslim community.”