Pandemic, economy worsen situation for Syria’s minority Christians

People gather at the site of an explosion in al-Bab, Syria Nov. 24, 202,0 in this picture obtained from social media. Religious workers say worsening coronavirus pandemic and economic conditions in Syria are further deepening poverty and hardship. (Credit: CNS photo/MMC/Sharif Al Halabi.)

AMMAN, Jordan — The worsening coronavirus pandemic and economic conditions in Syria are further deepening poverty and hardship for Christians, who find themselves trapped in a political stalemate, religious freedom advocates say.

“The situation is becoming worse, people are calling me every day and asking for help. I speak with people in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, and they don’t know what to expect in the coming days,” a Syrian religious told Catholic News Service by phone. He asked that his name not be used due to security reasons.

The Syrian currency’s worth has plummeted against the dollar, leading to what analysts say is a significant rise in prices of basic commodities, like bread, gasoline and heating fuel by more than 15% in November.

“Everything now is skyrocketing and there is no electricity,” the religious said.

The United Nations has warned that more than 9.3 million Syrians are at increased risk of hunger this winter, as the price of subsidized bread doubled during November and humanitarian access was reduced.

A medical project run by the Sacred Heart Sisters in the central city of Homs helps people in the city and surrounding area prepare for surgery in hospitals and assists with their medical treatment.

“Now, we have a crisis for this whole area,” the religious said. He said foreign financial aid has dried up and the project requires $598,000 to continue.

The aid reduction complicates a situation in which Syrian Christians sometimes find themselves treated as second-class citizens in sections of predominantly Muslim Syria.

“Our constitution does not afford Christians equality, especially concerning personal status (in) civil law dealing with inheritance, marriage, etc.,” the religious said.

He told of how a Christian woman came with her 16-year-old daughter to complain about an incident at her government school. The girl, who always attended religion class for Christians at school, was forced by the principal into a class for Muslim religious instruction because her father had converted to Islam when he remarried.

Syrians are holding talks about a new constitution to help end the country’s decade-long conflict. A Syrian constitutional committee — 45 delegates, with 15 each representing the Damascus regime, the opposition and civil society — was to meet for the fourth time in Geneva under U.N. auspices Nov. 30, after months of making little headway.

During an International Religious Freedom Ministerial meeting sponsored by Syrian Christians for Peace Nov. 20, Father Nadim Nasser, the Church of England’s only Syrian priest, and other religious freedom advocates urged that citizenship issues be addressed for the country’s Christian population.

“We should not be called minorities because we belong to the very fabric of the society in Syria since the beginning of Christianity,” Nasser said.

Nasser is the director of the Awareness Foundation, actively working inside Syria since the beginning of the 2011 conflict through its Ambassador for Peace and Little Heroes programs in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus and along the coast.

“As long as we fight, all of us, to have the dignity of being citizens in Syria, we shouldn’t need anybody to protect us other than the rule of law and the constitution of a country,” the Anglican priest said.

“What we need is for all political sides to stop playing the ‘faith card’ politically. I have seen that inside Syria and outside Syria, and also among clergy and religious leaders,” Nasser said.

“Secularism in Syria should respect faith and respect the diversity of religious affiliations and should support the freedom of religion inside the country,” he added.

Speaking at the same meeting, Pastor Nehad Hassan said he and his Kurdish parishioners are converts to Christianity and were banned from their “basic rights and are not capable of being registered in Syria as Christians.”

Hassan hails from Syria’s northwestern town of Afrin, overrun by Turkish and Islamist troops in 2018, and now leads a Kurdish church in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. The invading troops closed down Afrin’s churches.

“Our children are registered in the (Syrian) regime registrar as Muslims. I am taking about people who are of Kurdish or Yazidi background,” Hassan said.

“For the thousands of people who became Christians, they are taking refuge and emigrating, just for this reason. I’ve been married for three years and my marriage is not registered nor the birth of my child,” he said.

“We are between two pains: Some Christians don’t accept us … and for Muslims, they consider us as infidels who left their religion,” Hassan said.

Bassam Ishak, who heads the Syriac National Council, spoke to Catholic News Service by phone about a proposed secular constitution for Syria.

“If there is a specific reference to religious affiliation of certain Syrians in the constitution, then it should mention all religions in order to be fair to everybody and give everybody recognition and respect,” said Ishak, a graduate of The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He said if a new Syrian constitution “doesn’t mention any religion, then there is no need to mention Christianity.”

“We want a democratic constitution that is applicable in reality,” he said. “Right now, I don’t see a discussion of a constitution between all Syrian groups where everyone is heard.”

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