The next exodus of Christians?

0228syria_altar-servers.jpgBy John Pontifex
A SENIOR bishop in Syria has warned that Christianity in his country may suffer the same terrible fate as in neighbouring Iraq.
Speaking from northern Syria, the bishop, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said that “his most important” concern as a Christian leader was the danger of a mass exodus of faithful as happened in Iraq after 2003 following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The bishop’s comments, made today (Tuesday), come amid widespread fears that Christians will be among the worst to suffer if Assad falls and power is seized by Islamist rebel groups.
Meantime, some Church organisations have reported from centres of conflict, such as Homs, that up to 80 percent of Christians have fled in part as a result of an upsurge in religiously-motivated violence.
In his interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the bishop said: “We in Syria do not want to become like Iraq [where] we have lost so many Christians because of war and devastation.”
He added: “Of course people want to stay but the insecurity and violence encourages them to leave.”
While saying he had no statistics on recent Christian emigration from Syria, the bishop underlined his concern of a mass exodus similar to the one in Iraq where Christians fell quickly from five percent of the population in 1997 to less than 300,000 in the years following the downfall of Saddam Hussein.
Many thousands of Iraqi Christians sought sanctuary in Syria which today has 2.5 million faithful who have traditionally prospered in one of the most liberal and tolerant countries in the Middle East.
The bishop said: “We Christians want to stay in Syria and live peacefully and with everybody and continue our presence serving our country and our people.”
The bishop’s comments follow reports of earlier this month which quote Ignatius Joseph III, Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, warning Assad’s downfall might provoke disaster for Christians, with Islamic terrorists “targeting” Christians.
In his ACN interview today, the Syrian bishop went on to say poor people were desperate for medicine and food after prices shot up dramatically.
He said many people could not even afford basics such as rice, cooking oil, sugar and tea.
The bishop added that the Church was helping people in need adding: “We have to support poor families in most need of food and medicine.”
The bishop went on to resist calls for foreign intervention in Syria, saying the country was capable of resolving its problems internally.
He said: “We do not accept foreign intervention. Action of this kind is against every international law. We are able to organise ourselves and continue our life.”
His comments follow those of Lebanon’s Archbishop Paul El-Sayeh who in an interview with ACN last week called on all sides in Syria to put down their arms in a bid to prevent the conflict escalating into full-scale civil war.
The bishop in Syria said that in his region in the north of the country, the situation was calm and that life was “carrying on as normal” in spite of attacks earlier this month.
He added: “The attacks put fear into the hearts of people but now the situation is calmer with people going to work and doing what they always do.”

Editor’s Notes

Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.

Founded in 1947 by Fr Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An outstanding Apostle of Charity”, the organisation is now at work in about 130 countries throughout the world.

The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 162 languages and 48 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
Aid to the Church in Need UK is a registered charity in England and Wales (1097984) and Scotland (SC040748). ACN’s UK office is in Sutton, Surrey and there is a Scottish office in Motherwell, near Glasgow.

While ACN gives full permission for the media to freely make use of the charity’s press releases, please acknowledge ACN as the source of stories when using the material.

For more information, contact John Pontifex, ACN UK Head of Press and Information 020 8661 5161 or John Newton, ACN Press Officer, 020 8661 5167.