Syria: “The situation is intolerable”

On the first anniversary of the earthquake, a bishop in Aleppo calls for an end to sanctions and appeals to people not to forget the country

After the earthquake in Aleppo city - Syria, 7th February 2023. Hope Center/ACN

The Armenian Orthodox Bishop of Aleppo in Syria, Magar Ashkarian, has called for an end to the sanctions imposed on Syria, saying “most people are leaving the country in response to the sanctions, which is presenting us – especially minorities such as the Christians – with major challenges.” He listed current shortages of power and gas, and the large number of people without work as the greatest concerns.

“The future is bleak, we don’t know what we’re going to do,” said the bishop, in an interview with the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). At present the Armenian Orthodox community he oversees is trying to find affordable accommodation for young couples and give them financial support in order to encourage them to stay.

The bishop has been the leader of the Armenian Orthodox community in Aleppo since 2022, having previously served in Lebanon and Iran, among other places. He appealed to the international community “to make every effort, morally and financially, to help strengthen the presence of Christians in the Middle East, and in Syria in particular”, describing the situation there as “intolerable”. The earthquake on 6 February 2023, he said, which affected both Turkey and parts of Syria, made the humanitarian situation worse.

“We don’t talk about ecumenism, we put it into practice”

Ashkarian believes that the continuing migration of Christians will present the region with additional problems. “In order to protect Christian values, Christians must remain here in the Middle East, where these values are more deeply appreciated,” he said. “In the western world with its secularism and globalisation, the current is sweeping everything away.”

The bishop thanked organisations such as ACN for using “open windows and doors” to help the people of Syria. Ashkarian said that the civil war, which began in 2011, and the continuing crisis has brought the previously often disconnected Christian confessions closer together: “We live together in a very close relationship and try to help entirely without discrimination.”

According to the bishop, Aleppo alone is home to eleven Christian confessions, whose representatives have come together to coordinate aid measures: “The war, and the earthquake in particular, have brought us closer to each other. Organisations, including ACN, have played an instrumental role in this context.” In Aleppo, he said, ecumenism isn’t talked about, “here we put it into practice”.

Hoping for support

Ashkarian also expressed hope in light of the coexistence of Christians and Muslims, who in Syria have lived side by side for centuries. “Everyone has the same rights. We live in the country as brothers and sisters.”

In order to maintain this situation, assistance is crucial for all the people in Syria. “Whoever reads these words, in governments or institutions, or in a private capacity, please do whatever you can to help us out of this plight”, he pleaded.

More than 1.3 million in ACN support

Speaking one year after the terrible earthquake that affected Syria and Turkey, head of ACN ’projects in Syria, Xavier Stephen Bisits, summed up the impact of the natural disaster: “February 6 was a turning point in the life of most families in Northern Syria. I will never forget the scenes in the days and weeks after the earthquake. With that said, life is gradually returning to normal. With God’s help, ACN has been able to assess and repair much of the community infrastructure belonging to the Church. We have completed projects to reinforce and repair not just schools and kindergartens, but also parish halls and youth centres. The regular pastoral and social life of the Church has slowly returned. Our program to reinforce homes, so people can safely return, is continuing.”

Syria, 11.02.2023
Visit of Xavier Bisits (ACN Project Responsible in Syria) and Cardinal Mario Zenari (Apostolic Nuncio to Syria) to Lattakia and Jable after the earthquake.

As part of its response, ACN assessed directly after the earthquake the needs of all 14 affected dioceses and led a program of 28 projects with funds more than 1.3 million euros. “With that said, life is not normal. Northern Syrian has one of the most vulnerable civilian populations on earth, with more than 90% of the population living in poverty. We are committed to long-term support for vulnerable groups, including retreats to address the trauma, medical aid, and aid for the Catholic education system. Sadly, the emigration in the past 12 months, especially in Aleppo, has dramatically accelerated, with many families leaving for Canada. This is the reality. As a pontifical foundation, however, we are determined to make sure that those who want to stay in their homeland have the tools to do so.”