By Doreen Abi Raad/National Catholic Register
BEIRUT — In Aleppo, Syria, devastated by a catastrophic earthquake Feb. 6, all nine Christian rites — Catholic and Orthodox — are coming to the aid of the stricken population.
Xavier Stephen Bisits, head of the mission section for Lebanon and Syria of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), arrived in Aleppo from neighboring Lebanon on Feb. 7, a day after the disaster.
ACN has already launched an emergency fundraising appeal.
“The destruction is very obvious on the streets,” Bisits told the Register of the situation in Aleppo, ravaged already by 12 years of war. “Sometimes it is hard to tell which buildings have collapsed because of the war and which buildings have collapsed because of the earthquake,” he continued.
“You can really see how the people are in shock. There are people standing in the streets, who are not willing to go back to their homes. What people are worried about is an aftershock,” he said.
Aftershocks were continuing. On Feb. 7 around 6pm there was an aftershock that was particularly frightening.
“It is very cold in Aleppo,” Bisits stressed. Temperatures dip below freezing at this time of year.
“The people need blankets; they need food. The churches especially are providing that. All of the churches [the nine rites] are putting their churches, their parish halls, their salons, for people to come inside and stay warm and sleep if they don’t have a place to go to. They have also been serving meals,” Bisits said.
Many people are also sleeping inside the churches or church halls. “Last night [Feb. 7], in front of the churches especially, families have parked their cars and are sleeping in them,” he said. That way, they can go into the church hall to use the bathroom or to get some food, Bisits explained.
“They are afraid to go back into their homes until an engineer has gone in to make sure there is no structural damage. So they are waiting for that to happen before they go back inside. Then maybe they need to make some small structural repairs; maybe it is safe after all,” he said.
Helping Muslim Families Too
On Feb. 8, Bisits accompanied Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo to a mosque to visit the imam to offer blankets to some of the Muslim families displaced from their homes.
“What is tragic is this is not just a tragedy, but a tragedy within a tragedy, because the people here are so poor,” Bisits said.
He said that “there is a sense of shock and despair” among the people, compounded by all the hardships they have endured for 12 years.
“First it was the war; then it was the sanctions; then it was COVID; then it was the economic collapse. Now, it’s an earthquake. It feels very unfair to everyone,” Bisits said.
Already, even before the earthquake, there were electricity and fuel shortages in Syria’s second-largest city of more than 2 million people.
Amid Syria’s economic collapse, the level of poverty has reached 90%.
“Especially among the Christians remaining — they are poor families — to be able to deal with even very basic damages to their home, such as damaged water pipes, broken windows, is something that most of them can’t afford,” Bisits pointed out.
“In terms of what the Church is doing, in collaboration with ACN, I think we are thinking about three areas right now: The first is making sure that people have their basic needs met: food, blankets, shelter.”
He said ACN is looking into two or three emergency projects in Aleppo and Latakia, Syria, which was also badly hit by the earthquake.
“The second area is doing basic repairs to people’s homes so they can return. So we’re talking to the Catholic bishops about sending a team of engineers to make assessments and help people pay off those repairs so they can return to their homes. This is really the most important,” Bisits explained.
“The third, more longer term, is thinking about the damage to the churches and the possible infrastructure of the church. There were churches damaged in Aleppo, Latakia and Hama, some of it more serious and some of it less serious,” he said.
“At ACN, we have launched an emergency appeal to help with the repairs of the homes and also some of the basic emergency needs of the people. We are looking forward to collaborating with the Church. I think the people are very touched by how the Church is showing solidarity with the families by letting them inside, giving them a little bit of hope, and we hope to continue doing that with them,” he said.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association, based in New York, also immediately launched a fundraising appeal.
Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, told the Register that, in Aleppo, people left their homes by the thousands, worried about the safety of the buildings in which they live.
CNEWA’s preliminary aid will assist the work of the Blue Marist Brothers to house, clothe, feed and care for up to 1,000 families in the Aleppo area for up to three months. Currently, together with the Franciscan friars and Salesian Fathers, they are providing shelter to more than 2,000 people.
“Frankly, because of the sanctions, I think Syria had many limitations to respond properly to this catastrophe,” Constantin said.
“That’s why we think those who are working on the ground are heroes, and we need to support them to the maximum,” he said.
“All the churches in Aleppo have opened their doors to receive people,” he emphasized.
In response to the earthquake, the patriarchs and heads of churches in Syria demanded the lifting of “unjust sanctions,” calling for “exceptional measures” to secure delivery of humanitarian aid.
“We, the three patriarchs with the heads of churches in Syria, demand from the United Nations and the countries imposing sanctions on Syria to lift the embargo and the unjust sanctions imposed on the Syrian people, and to take exceptional measures and immediate initiatives to secure the delivery of the much-needed relief and humanitarian aid,” the church leaders said in a statement.
Based in Syria, the three patriarchs are: Melkite Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi; Syriac Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II and Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X.
“We appeal to governments, international organizations, NGOs, charities, and peace advocates everywhere to expedite the support of relief and rescue efforts, irrespective of any political consideration,” the Syrian church leaders said.
“We also appeal to the conscience of all the people of good will to advocate on behalf of the Syrians in order to put an end to their misery and enable them to live in dignity as envisioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” they said.
“This natural disaster adds to the ordeal of the Syrian people, who continue to suffer from the tragedies of war, crises, disasters, epidemics, and the harsh economic hardships resulting from inflation, the absence of indispensable materials, medications, and daily basic necessities needed in order for people to survive and live in dignity,” the prelates stressed.
“We call on the international community and the international ecumenical family to provide urgent emergency aid to the region, in coordination with the Middle East Council of Churches, the Churches and their affiliated institutions,” the MECC said in a statement.
“We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity.”
Their appeals and prayers are joined with those of Pope Francis. Before leading the faithful in a Hail Mary for all those affected, the Pope said in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall on Feb. 8, “We pray that Our Lady will protect them.”