Syrian churches remain beacons of hope after a decade of war
After 10 years of civil war, the situation for the Syrian people remains a “living nightmare,” says a United Nations chief.
On March 15, 2011, a small protest in the city of Aleppo - sparked by the wider Arab Spring protests - escalated and landed the country in a brutal civil war.
Ten years of violence, involving domestic, regional and global actors, has killed approximately 380,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population, some 13.2 million people. While roughly half of them (6.6 million) sought refuge in other parts of the world, the other half stayed.
“It is impossible to fully fathom the extent of the devastation in Syria, but its people have endured some of the greatest crimes the world has witnessed this century,” UN Secretary General António Guterres told journalists on March 10. “The scale of the atrocities shocks the conscience. Their perpetrators must be held to account if there is to be sustainable peace in Syria,” he said.
A decade of instability has plummeted Syria into a humanitarian crisis, with growing food insecurity. “Around … 60 per cent of the Syrian population does not have regular access to enough safe and nutritious food, and more than 90 per cent of the population is estimated to live under the poverty line,” according to The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in a press release.
Syria once had a sizeable Christian population of around 1.8 million, but fewer than 700,000 remain, according to Open Doors estimates.
Although it was unprepared for war, the Syrian Church responded to the crisis by bringing hope, said an OD spokesperson for the region.
“Churches, as well as other local faith-based organizations, have been providing humanitarian assistance, trauma care, education, livelihood projects as well as vocational training, and other essential services,” he said.
To support them, Open Doors started the Hope for the Middle East campaign in 2016, and will continue it through 2022.
So far, more than 1 million food parcels have been distributed to families in need, more than 500 homes renovated, and more than 1,730 income-generating projects have received investment. In the last five years, an average of 15,000 families have been given winter support packages each year. On an annual basis, some 12,000 people have gone through a skills training programme.
‘Centres of Hope’
Open Doors also has invested in helping local churches to become “Centres of Hope” to provide services and encouragement to their local communities. So far, 40 centres have been established and another 110 churches are receiving support.
“During the war, our support changed. We made the natural shift from purely relief to meeting other needs,” said Mourad, the coordinator of Open Doors' work in Syria. “Food and shelter alone don’t give hope. Giving [people] psycho-social support, helping them to provide in their own needs through income-generating projects and helping them to find purpose in life, do give hope.”
But soaring inflation has affected the help churches can offer, said Barkev Abajian, one of the managers of the Good Shepherd Center of the Alliance Church in the northern city of Aleppo. “We include less items in the food package than before. I know that the people also still need the items we leave out, because they are unable to buy them. Most people are jobless or do casual work but their income is so little they cannot cover all their needs,” he told Open Doors in July last year.
It is more important than ever that humanitarian donors and actors consider streamlining the allocation of humanitarian funds to qualified and trusted local faith actors in Iraq and Syria, according to Open Doors.
Local actors have a competitive advantage of providing humanitarian and development assistance to affected communities. They have served often as first responders, having provided humanitarian assistance and social services for centuries. They provide great logistical access. They have the ability to effect social change and act as interlocutors in their communities. And they are credible and trusted partners in their communities. They have proven over the last two decades to be irreplaceable and invaluable partners.