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Harsh winter brings pleas for refugees from Syria

14 December 2012


Fleeing Syria: refugees cross the Orontes river, near Hacipasa, Turkey, on Saturday

Fleeing Syria: refugees cross the Orontes river, near Hacipasa, Turkey, on Saturday

THE onset of winter, with strong winds, rain, and freezing temperatures, is adding to the hardship suffered by tens of thousands of Syrians who have fled the fighting in their country to seek refuge in Turkey and elsewhere.

The Priest-in-Charge of St Nicolas's, Ankara, Canon John Higgins, this week issued an appeal for prayers and practical help. "The problem is that we are caught in the middle of something with nightmare potential. From the east and south-east come dramatically increasing numbers of refugees, fleeing terror, persecution, and starvation."

As many as 9000 are estimated to be in the Ankara area alone. At the same time, "the first of the freezing winds tells us winter is almost here, and in a few days, or a couple of weeks at the most, we shall see temperatures driven to minus 25 and below," Canon Higgins said.

As well as prayers, there is a need for clothing, blankets, and money for fuel and food to meet "this urgent and growing need". (For more information, email canon-higgins@hotmail.co.uk.) Canon Higgins also commended the work being done to help refugees in Turkey by the Jesuit Refugee Service (jrs): it was "totally ecumenical in its working", erecting no barriers between Christians and Muslims. He said that the JRS team in Turkey was "effective, committed, and inspirational. I know, because I see them at work."

JRS representatives in Syria have also issued an appeal for help, saying that, as temperatures are dropping, there is a shortage of winter supplies. "We buy what we need and when we can. It's difficult to find all the supplies that we need, and it's never enough compared with the demand," the assistant director of JRS in Damascus said.

For now, JRS has managed to provide mattresses and blankets for the 3000 displaced people in Damascus. This number increases monthly, however, as more families from outside the city seek refuge in the capital. In the wake of a recent surge in violence in Damascus, as bombings and fierce gunfights are breaking out in many areas, it has become increasingly difficult to ensure the procurement and safe delivery of emergency supplies for displaced people.

"We have 1250 food baskets in stock: this will last us one more week," a JRS volunteer said. "After that, if the Syrian Red Cross is unable to replenish its supplies, then we will have to source the supplies for the food baskets ourselves."

Save the Children has also launched an appeal to help Syrian refugees in Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan to cope with the cold weather. "The heart breaking stories we're hearing from Syrian refugees as winter approaches underline the fact that this crisis is rapidly deteriorating," said the chief executive of the charity, Justin Forsyth. "Every day, new refugees are arriving, but the funding required to give them the help they need is simply not there. The international community needs to match its diplomatic and security concerns with funding to help children. Unless there is a surge in funding, thousands of children are going to spend a bitter winter without proper shelter from the cold, and many will become sick as a result."

Save the Children says that 400,000 refugees are living in tents, barns, unfinished buildings, and other temporary shelters that are ill-equipped to provide protection from the cold.

The pain being felt by the Christian community in Syria as they face an uncertain future was compounded by news of the death of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius IV, at the age of 92. He died in a hospital in Beirut on Wednesday of last week, and, after his funeral there, his body was taken to Damascus for burial on Monday.

The late Patriarch was born and brought up in Syria. He studied mathematics and philosophy in Lebanon, before entering the ministry. He became a bishop in 1962, and was elected Patriarch in 1979. In recent years, he had sought to keep good relations with the ruling regime, while trying to provide a bridge between the leadership of the country and those seeking change, whether Muslim or Christian.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that Patriarch Ignatius would be remembered as "one of the most outstandingly gifted, energetic, learned, and holy Orthodox hierarchs of our age. His work with young people has been of enormous significance; but he will also be remembered for his generous encouragement of some of the most creative Orthodox theology of the 20th and 21st centuries." More recently, Dr Williams said, "he has been a tireless worker for reconciliation in Syria, and his death will be a serious loss to all those who are struggling for a sustainable and just future for that troubled country."

Pope Benedict XVI praised the late Patriarch for having "offered luminous testimony to faith and charity, working with dedication for the spiritual elevation of the flock entrusted to him, and for the noble cause of reconciliation and peace among men". The Pope also paid tribute to "the positive and effective contribution the late Patriarch Ignatius made to the process of conciliation between our two Churches. Let his memory invite us to continue on the path of dialogue and the search for full communion in Christ."

The Metropolitan of three southern provinces in Syria, the Most Revd Saba Esper, has been named as a temporary successor to the late Patriarch.



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