ACN International, the Pontiﬁcal Foundation headquartered in Germany aiding Churches in need across the world, operates in 23 countries. Recently, it allocated 5 million Euro for relief programmes in Lebanon and Syria. The funds will be used to support new big and small projects in both countries.
Without this support, the Christian communities of Syria, which have endured over 10 years of war, could not return to pray in their churches, which have been damaged, looted or even bombed.
Only 20 Christians left in Homs in 2014
As part of this reconstruction process, Aid to the Church in Need has devoted funds to rebuilding the Greek Melkite Catholic Archdiocese and the cathedral in the heart of Homs, the third most populous city in the country.
“When I returned to Homs, I couldn’t visit the archbishopric because it was still under siege. The first time I was able to enter the diocesan compound was on May 9, 2014 . By that time the city of Homs had been completely destroyed, all the houses had been razed to the ground and there were only 20 Christians left in the whole city”, Archbishop Jean Abdo Arbach, the Greek Melkite archbishop of Homs, tells Vatican News.
Thereafter, Archbishop Arbach rolled up his sleeves to participate in the reconstruction process starting from several homes, followed by the episcopal residence and finally the cathedral.
This has allowed a number of Christian families of different denominations to settle back in the city. They are only a few, but this is already a good sign.
The Greek Orthodox Church too has regained its colours with 140 families. Before the war, it was the most important Christian community in Homs. The reconstruction of the Orthodox Church revealed an interesting surprise: an ancient underground church dating back to the first centuries of Christianity when Christians in the region hid in caves to pray was discovered.
Situation worse than during the war
Archbishop Jean Abdo Arbach picks up pen and paper to explain with some numbers that the current situation is more difficult now than during the war, which ended in Homs in 2014 after an agreement between the fighting parties was signed.
“The situations during and after the war are quite different,” he says. “During the war we could somehow thank God for providing us with all we needed. The borders with Lebanon and Jordan were open and we could move around. It may seem a paradox, but in fact the coup de grace came after the war, with the economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic which led to the closure of the border with neighbouring Lebanon.”
The crisis has further worsened with the new sanctions imposed on Syria, notably the ‘Caesar Act’ which was promulgated by US President Donald Trump in 2019 and entered into force in June 2020. Since then, all foreign companies have withdrawn from the country, leaving the Syrians to their plight.
“We found ourselves besieged,” the prelate says, “We could no longer move, had no more cash, there were no more imports or exports and prices exploded.” Syrians have hit rock bottom.
Within a very short time families fell into extreme poverty. This situation was first observed in the villages on the outskirts of Homs, Damascus and Aleppo, because no one had enough money to go there or to leave. At the same time, health services have deteriorated due to lack of resources.
While writing down numbers on a piece of paper, Archishop Arbach draws attention to the cost of surgery. Before the war a surgical operation cost 200,000 Syrian Liras; now it costs 2 million. The same applies to medicines, which are inaccessible to the overwhelming majority of families due to their exorbitant prices.
As he speaks, a power cut interrupts Archbishop Arbach, and a generator switches on automatically. “In Homs we only have two hours of electricity a day,” he explains. In most households who cannot afford a private or a collective generator all domestic appliances stop working: fridges, washing machines, televisions. In the cold weather heating has become a luxury people cannot afford because of the price of fuel.
10 families gone to Belarus
This situation does not encourage Christians to return. Worse, it ends up scaring away those who have resisted so far. Young people cannot imagine a future in their country. Many people suffer from depression and anxiety.
“Recently 10 families sold everything to go to Belarus,” continues Bishop Arbach. “They are now stranded at the border with Poland and cannot go anywhere. What will become of them?” he asks.
No future without education
Another problem is education. Many children, boys and girls, no longer go to school, and are forced to work to integrate their families income so they can eat. In addition, there is also the fact that most schools have been badly damaged and few have been rebuilt.
“What will become of of these children later if they don’t have access to education? This is very dangerous,” the archbishop remarks.
Encouraging Christians to return
This is why “we must reflect and ask for God to awaken the consciences of rulers so that they lift the sanctions and the country can reopen to the world,” he says.
According to the archbishop, a reconstruction programme would allow to create jobs and hope for a decent wage, to restore the dignity of people and to consolidate peace. Ending the sanctions would also encourage the return of Christians.
Archbishop Arbach considers their presence to be very important not only for Syria, but also for other countries in the Middle East.
“As bishops and servants of God, we must work with charitable associations like Aid to the Church in Need, l’Oeuvre d’Orient, and all other organizations in order to strengthen and root our presence, our rights, and our dignity as citizens in our country, and in our lands,” he concludes.