“You can die a number of ways in Damascus”
The Maronite Archbishop of Damascus, Samir Nassar, spoke to the international Catholic pastoral charity “Aid to the Church in Need” on life in Syria and the distress of its people
by Oliver Maksan, ACN International
Adapted by ACN Canada
Aid to the Church in Need: Your Excellency, the war in Syria has now lasted for more than three years. How are the people living in such a situation?
Problems are increasing. The economy is dead. The people have no work. Inflation is rising. Our currency is rapidly losing value against the dollar. Gradually everyone is becoming poor. People have used up their savings. They all need help. We as a Church are trying to support as many families as possible. At the present time this involves about 300-400 Christian families. The problem is getting the help to them. This isn’t without its dangers. It’s possible to get robbed or be abducted. But we have to take this risk. Otherwise our people will leave. We’ve already been forced to close down three parishes because the faithful have gone. So if we don’t help the few that remain, there’ll be no longer a Church in Damascus. Thank God that Aid to the Church in Need is there to help us in these difficult years.
Is the Syrian state still able to grant any assistance?
No. People have to rely on their own resources. But as I said, even those who are in work are becoming poor on account of the high inflation. But there is hardly any work. Elderly people are of course particularly badly affected. To date they have been supported by their families. But these no longer have anything. And so we are trying to take their place. We have a program which helps old people get their medications.
How should we imagine the day-to-day life in a war zone?
Well, we are now in the fourth year of the war. In the beginning everybody was afraid of the fighting, the bombs and the missiles. Now we’ve got used to it. Life must go on. Of course we try to be very careful. It’s better to stay at home than to be on the street. You can die a number of ways in Damascus. For instance, you can be shot by a sniper or blown up by car bombs. And of course there are the shells. And then again you can die from lack of medications if you are injured. The hospitals no longer have sufficient supplies of medicines. One shell can kill three or four people immediately on impact and perhaps injure thirty or forty others. As a result ten more will die because they do not receive adequate medical attention. And of course you can also die of malnutrition. If you are a diabetic, for example, and need a certain diet, but don’t get it, you will also die early. And the living conditions are also poor in other ways. We have two million children who no longer go to school. Many schools have been destroyed. And the ones that are left are completely overcrowded. In each classroom they now have around sixty pupils. This determines the level accordingly.
What is the situation regarding the food supply? Is it possible to buy things if you have money, or is there simply nothing?
You can indeed buy things, especially canned goods. But what’s lacking is fresh foodstuffs, like vegetables, cheese and meat. The problem is also that you have to keep fresh food in cold storage because of the heat. But unfortunately we have problems with the power supply. And so we eat mainly canned products and non-perishables such as rice or lentils.
Do you have the impression that the war and the distress have deepened the faith of your flock?
Yes. There is a return to the faith. People are praying a lot more. The churches stay open longer. Many of the faithful go there to pray in silence, often for hours on end. They have nothing left but their faith. They are in a dead-end and are waiting for death. At the end of mass they say goodbye because they don’t know whether they will see one another the next day. The mood is very resigned. People surrender to their fate. So it’s a very difficult situation. We as a Church are at the moment doing less pastoral work and primarily social work, and we are trying to alleviate the people’s distress. That is all they have at present. There is no other help available. The family is basically the only intact institution. It’s the family which helps, shares and supports. Identity with the family is very pronounced. Without the family it would be a total disaster.
Do you have any figures regarding those of your faithful who have left Syria?
No. We don’t have any statistics. But we notice how the number of people taking the sacrament is falling from year to year, and very sharply too. In 2012 there were more baptisms and weddings than in 2013. The number of funerals, on the other hand, is rising. We now have to enlarge our cemetery. Previously we had projects for a kindergarten or a school, but now we are planning enlargement of the Christian cemetery.
Since the war began, in March 2011, ACN has provided a total of approximately 5.92 million CAD in aid for the people of Syria and for the Syrian refugees in the neighbouring countries. In 2014 alone, the charity supplied a total of $1,762, 530 CAD in emergency aid for the war victims and refugees of Syria.