Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Al-Safir on the Return of Christians to Homs

Arabic original here.

Syria's Christians: Nativity, Golgotha and Resurrection... All at Once
by Wissam Abdallah

Putting up a Christmas tree with a small crèche beside it is something normal, but it is something exceptional in the Hamidiya neighborhood of the old city of Homs in a time of war and destruction, in a time when some residents are returning to their destroyed homes. To complete the image: a Golgotha of suffering experienced by the people and a Nativity and Resurrection of their will to live.

With the conclusion of the truce in the old city of Homs and the departure of armed groups from its neighborhoods, some residents have started to return to their homes and neighborhoods to contribute to the return of life as much as is possible.

As Christmas approaches, young people in the neighborhood of Hamidiya have started to celebrate in a way fitting the situation that the country is experiencing and in a way that confirms their presence and existence in their land.

A recital of Christmas songs was held at the Syriac Catholic church and a Christmas concert was held at the Umm al-Zunnar Church. Homs' director of endowments, Sheikh Issam al-Masri and the director of the Homs project of the Jesuit Commission for the Service of Refugees, Fr Ziyad Hilal and the coordinators of the Program for the Rehabilitation of Wells all took part in the blessing and rehabilitation of a number of water wells.

The flames of war have affected places of worship.  Fadi, from Hamidiya, spoke to al-Safir about this and says, "The area of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan has twelve churches of various denominations. These churches were damaged to varying degrees over the course of events. Some were completely destroyed, like the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint George, some were extensively damaged, like the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of Peace, the Church of the Holy Spirit, Umm al-Zunnar, and the Protestant church. Some were lightly damaged." Locals and Christian religious leaders are working together with official institutions and civil associations to rebuild homes and places of worship and to rebuild infrastructure such as electricity, telephones, water and sanitation, and to haul off the enormous amount of debris in the area.

Fadi explains the role played by Christian religious leaders in convincing the armed groups that were in Hamidiya and the old city of Homs as a whole, since they were accepted as dialogue partners by these groups. He says, "Today also they are contributing as much as possible to the special agreement in al-Waer. This does not mean that religious leaders from other communities have not contributed to these agreements. In their turn, they have put pressure on the armed groups and softened the government's demands in these settlements."

He adds, "In terms of the role of Christian religious leaders in bringing life back to the old city of Homs, it is true what is said about them, that they immediately started to provide water, supplies, meals and all the basic essentials of life in order to facilitate the return of residents to their homes. This continues even now."

Among ruined walls and burned-out rooms, residents are returning. Shops are opening and neighborhoods are being cleaned up. Around thirty thousand families are estimated to have fled Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, while the number having returned up to this point is no greater than 500 families. This is due to various reasons, the most important being that their period of displacement was very long.

A young man named Amjad who is among those returning to Homs spoke to al-Safir about this situation, saying, "Voluntary return is particular to families, each according to their circumstances and capabilities. However, I can confirm the return of a large proportion of those owning homes and means, at least to repair what was destroyed by the war and then to take up permanent residence in the coming period."

According to Fadi, "the decision to return requires an active economy in order to move their businesses back there again." He adds to these factors the inability of some to bear the costs of rebuilding their homes, especially those that have been seriously damaged. For his part, Amjad says that "the basis for this return is a sense of belonging to and love for this land and nation... Here are our homes... Here are our memories... Here are our churches. The armed groups forced us to leave at the start of the crisis."

As for Fadi, he believes that the situation of Christians in Syria is like that of all Syrians, who are attached to their land, their homes and their neighborhoods and that it is natural for them to return when circumstances allow. He adds, "I do not deny the high rate of refugees outside of Syria as a result of the crisis, but i believe that it is a temporary flight in order to wait for the security situation to stabilize in Syria as a whole."

Syria's Christians are among those who have chosen to remain and to continue life in their land and their institutions. They are contributing to the formulation of a new message at the threshold of Christmas, perhaps the beginning of a "theology of stone" to express the rootedness of their presence within Syrian society. It is a theology that is not based on religious dogma so much as a social engine that is not limited to Christians but includes all Syrians, so that each can contribute to building a bridge and forging a way to raise the nation up from its bitter wounds.

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