Wednesday, May 8, 2013

as-Safir on Syrian Christian Refugees in Lebanon

Arabic original here.

Christians: We are being Stoned for No Crime

The kidnapping of the bishops of Aleppo, Paul Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, in Syria over a week ago was not the chief reason that many of the Syrian Christians displaced to Lebanon have decided to remain there and attempt to secure a visa to any Western country.

The incident was no more than conclusive evidence of the "correctness" of their decision not to return to their homes. They have been made certain that they are a group that is no longer welcome by the "makers" of the revolution and the parties of the conflict.

In public, Syrian Christians talk about the concern over security and blame it for their fleeing and seeking to emigrate. Privately, however, they are terrified of "fundamentalist Salafi rule" that does not allow for any partner in the state or in the general future of the region.

As for partnership in government, this is a dream that they have given up on for some time, even as they mention from time to time that they are the original inhabitants of the land who did not leave their country, neither at the birth of Islam nor at the outbreak of any of the wars that the region has experienced over the course of history.

But today the situation is different from the killing and distruction that they have lived through. This is what has made the distance between the Lebanon to which they fled and their homeland of Syria greater than the distance between Lebanon and any other country. Even if a small number of them express their intention to return, the conditions that they express partially and partially fear to express are almost impossible to connect with the strong intention and repeated efforts, which they have not given up on when they fail, to emigrate far away.

It is still not known if Syrian Christians are the ones who walled themselves in, locking the door to return to Syria while the doors of western countries were shut in their face. Thus there is no country for them to take refuge in apart from Lebanon, which has come to resemble a prison for them. They grasp after a livlihood, and hide in the villages and cities, not only from the hands of the butchers in Syria, but also from any count that might number them.

For this reason, as well as for other reasons, aid is not reaching these refugees in an regular and sufficient manner, while in some cases they fall prey to certain sectarian and civil groups and organizations that  solicit funds in their name without necessarily using it to help them.

Up till the present moment, neither the eastern nor western churches have provided systematic assistance to Christian refugees, neither opening the doors of their monasteries to them nor offering them any of their proceeds. They are only covered in speeches by their leaders that mention the necessity of preserving Middle Eastern Christianity and a diverse Middle East.

Perhaps the churches are waiting are waiting for the picture of the new Middle East that the West is designing to be complete. However, it is certain that Christians have come to realize that they role that they had long thought they had been entrusted with, spreading the spirit of change and democratization in the region, has been taken by other interests, and the winds are blowing in directions their ships do not desire.

No one in Lebanon has precise or comprehensive figures for the number of Syrian Christian refugees there (the number of Christians in Syria is about two million out of a total population of 23 million). 2,777 Christians reguees are registered with the High Commission for Refugees, a total of 0.9% of all Syrian refugees. The Commission knows that the majority are not registered with them. The Syriac League estimates the number of Christian refugees from Syria to be around ten thousand. A small number of them are living in monsteries and small communities, while the majority of them are spread out in citie and villages where they have rented homes or stay with relatives.

Christians have fled from Aleppo and its surroundings, while a smaller number of them has fled from Damascus and nearby areas. Across their various social classes, they think that their stay in Lebanon will be long, because their return to Syria depends on an end to the fighting and the rebuilding of the country. Even though they have their hearts set on emigration, a large number of them are trying to work in Lebanon, as they waver between liquidating their businesses and selling their assets in Syria and holding on to them. In this they are trying to "benefit" from the experience of Iraqi Chrisians and the Copts in Egypt, worrying about "the completion of the process of ethnic cleansing" in the region, according to one of them.

Their situation today resembles that of Saint Barbara, who fled, hiding in fields and deserts, from her pagan father's punishment. Today they wear masks, trying to hide facts and fears. First they change their names and refuse to talk about politics. They even subject the story of their flight to self-censorship, desiring to ensure their future as individuals and not as a group out of the fear that group decisions that they do not want would be imposed on them, such as repatriation or political refugee status.

Class and Options

The majority of Christians fled from Syria on account of their areas being targeted directly, according to Aleppo native Teodoros, while others lingered in their areas "awaiting big decisions." For the Christians, big decisions are those that could lead to their being expelled from the Arab countries, in the manner of the Christians of Iraq and (to a lesser extent) Egypt, after which they no longer experienced being directly targeted.

Those who have grown weary of being shelled flee to Beirut, leaving behind a house, a business, or school... Some of them stay as guests with relatives and friends at first. Their fates differ according to their material circumstances, which already defined for them in principle the possibility of fleeing to Beirut or of remaining and enduring the dangers.

Doctor Raymond, a gastrointestinal specialist who fled from Aleppo to Beirut, says that the poor have no choice and are unable to flee on account of the expense. This is an opinion that not all agree with, since in principle possessions such as real estate are often what makes the decision to flee difficult.

However, Christians' fears have made them immune to these constraints. Financial concerns have not delayed the flight of the poor nor have possessions and employment caused the middle class and wealthy, as they prefer keeping their necks to keeping their livelihoods.

In Lebanon, poor Christians search for a livelihood but are unable to find it, neither through religious sources nor through finding a new employer. They live day by day, the most they can hope for is to be given their daily bread and that the Lord will save them from the evil one.

Wafa recounts that she has neither obtained her bread nor has been saved from the evil one, because the crying of her daughter Layla, who is not yet eight months old, has not reached any ears that listen or hearts that take pity on her. Her mother, who continues to look for work after the death of her husband in Syria, moved between seven locations before taking refuge in a monastery in Keserwan. Lebanese and Syrian men tried to harass her, and her daughter was almost snatched from her, had a passer-by not intervened in the market in Jounieh. He brought her to that monastery where she lives today off of what is provided to her by a charity. However all of this does not keep her from anger at her unknown fate and a future that she no longer has any ability to plan.

By contrast, there are Christian refugees who sought out fancy hotels who were unhappy even with giving up their perfume. They possess the right to decide their own fate, since western countries open their doors to them, especially if they bring along their assets.

"They chased off the specter of the Commission"

The communications director of the Commission, Dana Sulayman, discloses that a team is in communication with a number of bishops and monks to encourage Christian refugees to register with them. She realizes that "they fear that this registration will be interpreted as a specific political affiliation. But it is necessary that we reach those of them that are the most in need."

For them, this is not a convincing reason. Wael, forty and the father of two children, says, "The Commission has indicated in a communique that they do not have sufficient funds to assist the Syrian refugees, so how can they chase after us? Is it only to gather information about us to sell to powerful interests? As long as there is no funding, why should we go to them to wait for months for a bag of rice or a sack of sugar?"

Wael, like the young woman Bana, refuses to rely on the Commission for repatriation in countries of its choice, according to demand and quotas, just as they refuse to change their requests to emigrate to requests for political asylum.

Christians try to be based in Christian regions of Lebanon. Zahle, the Metn, Keserwan, and Beirut have received the lion's share of them. The majority of the needy among them have sought out dioceses and religious charities, and they have received a scant portion as "these organizations cannot provide more than this."

A large number of them have heard about the activity of the organization Caritas, only to learn that this activity is tied to cooperation with the work of the Commission. The head of Caritas in Lebanon, Fr Simon Faddoul, says that of those his organiation has helped through cooperation with the Commission, "92% are Muslim, 4% are Christian, and 2% are other."

Fr Faddoul places the blame first of all on the unregistered Christians themselves for the lack of assistance reaching them, stating that Caritas is a humanitarian organization and does not work according to religion. Among the few groups that work to provide assistance specifically to Christians, one organization that refuses to be mentioned by name indicated that it is in contact with donors that can offer assistance for a period of six months and through this funding they assist around one thousand Christian families. However, those in charge of the organization do not know what will happen to them if funding is not secured to provide continued assistance at the end of those six months.

As for the monasteries and some of the dioceses, they support refugees as they are able and receive funding for this from their flocks abroad.

Likewise, the Syriac League, along with Assyrian and Chaldean groups, are working to form a committee to keep track of the situation of a number of Christians, but their effort is tied to their ability to secure funding according to the League's president, Habib Afram.

Furthermore, a number of organizations seek to exploit the situation of Christian refugees. They count them for aid in exchange for them enrolling with them, but the aid never comes.

It is worth mentioning that the American congressman Frank Wolf visited Egypt and Lebanon and listened to the concerns of Christians there, especially Syrian refugees. He discovered that funds sent through private channels for the aid of Christians had not reached them.

Awaiting the "New Middle East"

No matter how much the words and deeds of western countries differ, a large number of Christian refugees find that events are demanding that they build their future far from the region. They point out the experience of Iraq first of all and then that of Egypt, and they are wary of a new Syrian regime nibbling away at what remains of their role in the country.

Some of them call what is happening persecution and indicate that they will wait in Lebanon until the new picture of the "new Middle East" is completed.

Fr Faddoul states that he cannot talk of persecution of Christians in Syria, despite the kidnapping of the two bishops and before them three priests, since killing and destruction are affecting everyone.

On the other hand, Afram believes that current events are leading to the removal of Christians from the Middle East. He does not believe that any plan exists that includes them or takes them into account, since they are not longer a means for realizing any of the interests of the western countries. He says, "There is no special file on the Christians, either for the Europeans, the Americans, or even the Saudis. We are not on anyone's mind."

The intellectual Fr Michel Sabeh goes so far as to even speak of the absence of a Christian role in the Middle East. "Christians first preserved their role through proposing the project of Arab nationalism in the face of Ottoman arms, then by changing into an effective bridge between the major western countries and Arab oil. But, with the transformation of relations between the West and Islam into direct relations, through the development of Islamic schools and Israel's failure at using Christians as a weapon against Islam, Tel Aviv has found that the solution to being accepted as a religious state is to work to undermine the relatively moderate Arab regimes and to replace them with statelets under Islamic fundamentalist leadership."

Before this reality, Sabeh considers the possibility of Syrian Christians remaining to be dependent on "the victory of a moderate Islam that accepts the other."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this heart rending story. There is always light at the end of the tunnel, my dear:

Some general (source: UNHCR) data on the refugee numbers in Lebanon:

We shall keep our candles burning for all Syrians!