CSI Germany recently invited a Syrian doctor and a priest of the Syriac Catholic Church to Berlin to report on the situation at present in Syria. The reality they described is grim: people are living in extreme poverty and the few Christians who remain in the country face an uncertain future.
From left, Kathrin Visse of the Catholic Academy, Nabil Antaki, Amer Kassar and Peter Fuchs, CEO of CSI Germany, discussed the future of Syria. csi
It is some time since fighting came to an end in most parts of Syria. The civil war that began in 2011 is largely over. But the humanitarian situation for civilians in Syria is worse than ever, according to Dr. Nabil Antaki, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) project partner in Aleppo, and Monsignor Amer Kassar from the capital, Damascus. The medical doctor and clergyman were speaking at an event held at the Catholic Academy in Berlin on September 19, 2023.
The Covid-19 pandemic, an outbreak of cholera and the severe earthquake that struck northern Syria in February of this year have all played a part in the current catastrophe. But the main cause of the human suffering is the sanctions imposed on Syria by the international community at the outset of the civil war. The wide-ranging sanctions are preventing reconstruction and economic recovery.
Syria’s neighbors Lebanon and Turkey want to send all the Syrian refugees back home. But for returnees the prospect of life in Syria is grim. Many houses are still in ruins. For those in employment, salaries have remained stable, but prices have risen massively and are now more than eight times higher than they were in 2020. To put it in context, someone earning the average wage of 25 euros a month whose shopping basket includes formula milk will have higher monthly outgoings than income. Bread and gasoline are rationed and electricity is limited to two hours per day.
It is no surprise then that according to current estimates more than 90 percent of the Syrian population is living below the poverty line and 70 percent is reliant on humanitarian aid.
For many, medical treatment in hospital is only possible thanks to the support of international aid organizations. And although medical supplies are exempt from international sanctions, many Western manufacturers fear difficulties with the authorities in their own country and do not deliver to Syria, where “41 percent of public hospitals are non-functional or only partially functional,” according to a report in the German news program Tagesschau.
Anyone requiring essential surgery has to do the rounds of aid organizations to request funds to cover the costs. “Under such circumstances people lose all human dignity,” says Nabil Antaki. “Most Syrians perceive the health care situation to be worse now than it was during the war.”
Christians, who comprised ten percent of the Syrian population before the war, now account for just two percent. So it is increasingly difficult for Christian communities to pass on their faith. “There is not only a lack of young priests, but also of young adults able to, for example, lead scout groups or give religious instruction,” says Monsignor Kassar.
He paints a bleak picture of the future of the Christian churches in Syria. He believes that, assuming things continue as they are, it is possible that there will be no more Christians in Syria by 2060, as some estimates show.
“This would greatly change the social fabric of the country, since until now Christians, Muslims and other faith communities have largely lived together in harmony,” says Kassar.
Both Nabil Antaki and Amer Kassar point out that Christians are not more affected by the sanctions than anyone else. All Syrians suffer equally in the current situation. However, most Christians tend not to live in large regional communities but are spread out about the country. For that reason, they do not form a tight-knit, supportive community.
There is no quick solution in sight. “Only the readmission of Syria to the international community and the lifting of the sanctions, which have severe consequences for the population, would enable reconstruction and an orderly return of refugees – and also stop the wave of emigration,” says Antaki.
Whereas young people used to dream of good jobs and having their own families, today they only think of one thing: “Leaving the country as soon as possible,” Kassar adds.