By Ben Joseph
(UCA News) – Christians in Syria have endured an 11-year war made worse by migration, hardship, sanctions, blockades, death and indifference. Their churches have been damaged, looted or even bombed, but they are picking up the pieces to revive religious life in the war-torn Middle Eastern nation.
In his Christmas message, Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus hailed Syrian Christians for their solidarity as a “heroic family”.
Syria’s Christian minority is facing what the Maronite Archbishop called “an endless exodus of peoples, violence and death.”
Despite the trials, the Syrian Church “remains firm in the faith”, according to the prelate of the Maronite Church, which is in communion with the Catholic Church.
He praised those Christians who “continue the effort to live with dignity in this seemingly endless struggle”.
The Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese of Homs also suffered greatly during the war. Syria’s third most populous city has been completely destroyed and there are hardly any Christians left.
According to Bishop Jean Abdo Arbach, the reconstruction process starting with the residences aims to bring Christian families of different faiths back to the city.
Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical charity, has allocated funds to rebuild the Melkite Greek Catholic Archdiocese and Homs Cathedral, among other reconstruction projects it is funding in Syria.
Before the start of the war in 2011, Greek Orthodox Christians were the largest Christian community in Homs.
With the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, Christians are facing difficulties due to the closure of the border with neighboring Lebanon.
According to Bishop Arbach, before the start of the war, surgery would cost 200,000 Syrian liras ($80); now it costs 2 million. Medicines are inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of families because their prices have exploded.
Because fuel has become more expensive, heating has become a luxury reserved for the few. Even milk has become a luxury at 12,000 Syrian liras per kilo while the average salary is around 70,000 liras.
But the archbishop hopes more Christians will return as the reconstruction program gains momentum.
In many parishes in Aleppo, another city in war-torn Syria, Christians of different faiths gather to help each other, as do Muslims.
The Armenian Apostolic Church community distributes hot meals to the elderly almost daily in front of their cathedral. Not far from there, the Greek Orthodox Church has set up a rescue center.
Aleppo was the most populous Syrian city before the war, followed by the capital Damascus. In its old town, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is almost nothing left that deserves its name because of the war.
Hungarian and Russian Christians came forward to launch joint projects to support Christian education in Syria.
According to Bishop Arbach, the biggest challenge is education. “What will become of these children later if they don’t have access to education? It is very dangerous,” he remarked in an interview with Vatican News on January 3.
Children in war-torn Syria face impossible choices about the future. Some 2.5 million of them are out of school across the country. More than 6.1 million children need assistance and 3.1 million children are internally displaced, according to UNICEF.
Two children have been killed and five others injured in northwestern Syria since the start of the new year, UNICEF said while urging warring factions to refrain from attacking children.
Without exception, every Syrian child has been a victim of violence, displacement, broken family ties and lack of access to vital services such as health and education.
They grew up knowing nothing but crisis. The historic monuments and once-busy markets they walked in have been reduced to rubble.
Amid extreme poverty, parents are forced to skip meals to feed their children. Instead of sending them to school, they go to work. Girls and boys are at risk of early or forced marriage and sexual exploitation.
In fact, the Syrian crisis was sparked when the government launched a crackdown on public protests in support of teenagers arrested for anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Daraa in March 2011.
Soon the country descended into a bloody civil war that uprooted millions of families from their homes.
Syrian refugee children live in more than 130 countries. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt host many. Turkey is home to the largest number of Syrian refugee children and their prospects of return are slim.
In crowded refugee camps, it is difficult for children to adhere to public health measures like hand washing and physical distancing.
Nearly 45% of Syrian refugees in the region are teenagers and more than a third of them have no access to education. They face harsh conditions during one of the region’s coldest winters.
These children inside Syria seem to be worse off than their counterparts in other countries. Not only do they feel “less connected to their community”, but they are also “significantly more likely” to experience discrimination.
It has become difficult for displaced Syrian children to imagine a future in their country of origin.