There is an exodus of Christians from Syria, but it is not being caused by ISIS – at least not anymore. Instead, a lack of peace and an unprecedented economic crisis caused by Western sanctions are threatening Christians’ survival in one of the birthplaces of the church.
This is the message that Gregorios III Laham, the former Greek Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, brought to Fribourg, western Switzerland, on 22 April.
In a moving speech, he spoke about the war, the earthquake, and the economic sanctions regime that are afflicting his home country of Syria. The emeritus patriarch’s remarks were followed by a panel discussion among Christian NGOs, in which CSI participated.
In Syria today, Gregorios said, there are severe shortages of fuel and wheat caused by the sanctions. He himself has had to stop traveling by car, because fuel is so expensive. And even though he has friends in the West who want to donate to a hospital he is trying to build in southern Syria, the sanctions have blocked their financial gifts until now.
After 12 years of war and sanctions on Syria, the earthquake of February 6 was almost too devastating to understand, the former patriarch said.
Thousands of Syrians were killed, and tens of thousands were left without shelter. But, “We see the greatness of the Lord in our weakness. I never saw so much solidarity between people in my life as I did after the earthquake.”
People opened their houses to strangers, and those living in outlying villages collected food and clothing to send to people in the city of Aleppo. Even many of Syria’s Arab neighbors, which have been at odds with Syria’s government for the past decade, sent planes full of aid.
Unfortunately, Gregorios noted, the United States and European nations maintained the sanctions on Syria, even after this terrible earthquake, making it very difficult to rebuild. “It’s a real shame for our European friends,” he said.
“Peace is the most important thing we can give to Christians in Syria,” the patriarch concluded. “Christians in Syria live in peace with their Muslim neighbors.
“If we can help Christians stay in Syria, they can help create peace between the Muslim and Christian worlds. Otherwise, we may see a true ‘clash of civilizations’.”
The patriarch’s speech was followed by a panel discussion among Christian NGOs involved in bringing humanitarian aid to Syria. Joel Veldkamp from CSI participated on the panel, along with Emmanuel French of Aid to the Church in Need. Marc Surchat of the Swiss branch of ACAT (Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture) moderated the panel.
“What Syria needs now is not more humanitarian aid,” Veldkamp said. “A country cannot live on humanitarian aid alone. After 12 years of war, Syria needs reconstruction.
“It needs to be able to rebuild its schools, its hospitals, its roads, its electricity and water plants. It needs to have a real economy. And this is precisely what the sanctions are designed to prevent.”
CSI has been working in Syria since 2013, helping Christians and other people affected by the war, sanctions, and jihadist attacks. Veldkamp emphasized that CSI always works with trusted partners in Syria, who we have known for many years, to ensure the integrity of the aid process.
Currently, CSI has projects in Damascus, Hama, Homs, Aleppo, Tartus, Al Hasakah, and the “Valley of Christians”.
Since 2016, CSI has also been campaigning against the sanctions placed on Syria by the U.S. and its allies, after realizing the devastating impact the sanctions were having on Christians and other Syrians.