The apparent kidnapping of some 90 Christians in the northeast of Syria is another reminder — if any is needed — that Christians and other religious groups continue to be at grave risk as Islamic jihadi groups gather steam in the Middle East.
And that merely serves to put greater pressure on people of means to pick up their belongings and seek greener pastures in the West.
But that option is one that many Christian leaders in the Middle East are fighting hard to counter. Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, a couple of hundred miles west of where the 90 Christians were captured Monday, knows that he must counter the temptation not only with material aid but with a real sense of hope that the current long lent Christians are suffering will indeed come to an end.
“I think that after the war these fundamentalist groups will be defeated,” he said in a telephone interview Monday. “Because they’ve gone too far in the way they deal with others, too far in their violence. They’ve been refuted. I think this will happen soon.”
Archbishop Jeanbart is one recipient among many of some $2.8 million in grant money coming from the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, earmarked specifically for Christians in Syria.
“Syria has been forgotten,” said Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the organization’s Middle East section, in an interview from Egypt last week. “The world and the media don’t seem to be interested anymore in the crisis. We are trying to draw attention to the enormous task of the international communities and churches. People need great help during this wintertime. We have three million children without access to school, five million people in areas surrounded by ISIS, so humanitarian aid is very much needed by them.”
Syrian Christians need the kind of confidence that a leader like Jeanbart can instill, said Father Halemba. “They are very much afraid [of the Islamic State group]. When Mosul was taken, it was a big blow, and people were saying ‘Now it’s our turn; they will attack Aleppo and do the same thing they did in Mosul,’” he said.
The Polish priest heard stories from several people working on the ground, including a nun who told him that in a village near Hassake, the area where the Christian civilians were kidnapped Monday, a group of jihadists came into town on motorcycles and ordered the women to stay home and not to go outside. “And they pulled down all the crosses and said, ‘You should obey Sharia,’ and ‘We’re coming back.’ So the Christians were saying ‘We have to protect ourselves,’ and they sent the women and girls away and took weapons and said they would fight. But what kind of fight? They can’t do much against ISIS jihadists.”
Adding to the problem is the fact that many Christians in Syria fear being targeted by extremist groups even in refugee camps, so they avoid going there and registering and thus have so far benefited only to a limited extent from relief provided by the UN and other large, secular NGOs.
Instead, they tend to go to their parishes and the charities of the local Church. Aid to the Church in Need will fund a number of projects to help Christian communities in Aleppo, Homs, Damascus and other cities and villages that have been hard hit by the war. The charity will help provide 4500 vulnerable families with funds to purchase oil, gas electricity and to pay their rent for four months; ensure a supply of medical supplies for communities in Aleppo and Hassake for six months; pay for repairs and fuel costs at half a dozen schools in Aleppo and Damascus, and support local Churches in the repair of badly damaged or destroyed infrastructure, including churches, catechetical centers, and diocesan offices.
Archbishop Jeanbart’s dream project is to establish a “Solidarity Fund” to help Christians rebuild their livelihoods, start businesses, and get training. He says it’s his duty to try to keep Christians in Syria.
“It’s important for the Church universal to maintain the presence of the Church in Syria,” he said from his war-ravaged city. “We are the sons of the first missions. The first Christians baptized by the Apostles included many Jews from Syria who would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem at Pentecost…. So we have a responsibility to do what we can to maintain the presence of the Church where it was born.”
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.