SYRIANS may be celebrating in a “more stable” country this year, but it will still be a “wounded Christmas”, a Syrian C of E priest, the Revd Nadim Nassar, has said. He noted that many families would be missing young people who had either died or emigrated in the past six years of conflict.
“This is like the thorn in every side: that the younger generation is not around any more,” Mr Nassar, who is the director of the Awareness Foundation, said last week. “That does not mean that the Christians are not celebrating: they are celebrating to show that Christianity in Syria is not dead, and will never die.”
Christmas celebrations would be more visible this year, he suggested, as a “resilient gesture that we are here, despite the pressure on us to leave from the radical groups. . . We are here to stay, and not only to stay, but to continue our role as a light in the community.”
Many Christians have welcomed the consolidation of territory by President Assad during the past year, regarding him as a bulwark against extremist forces. The first anniversary of the fall of eastern Aleppo to the Syrian army after months of intense fighting, falls this month. Raqqa, the self-declared capital of Islamic State, was liberated by Kurdish-led forces in October (News, 1 September). Last week, the UN’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said that military operations were “coming to a close”.
Yet reports of atrocities committed by government forces, aided by Russian air-power, have continued to emerge (News 16 December, 2016). Last month, a report produced by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and United Nations’ Joint Investigative Mechanism said that the Syrian government was to blame for a sarin attack on Khan Sheikhoun, in April (News, 10 November); and a study published in The Lancet this month concluded that children accounted for almost one quarter of civilians deaths in 2016, owing to “increased reliance on aerial bombing by the Syrian government and international partners”.
The study described how barrel bombs were dropped by Syrian government forces on hospitals, markets, and homes; they were often followed, minutes later, by a second, “to eliminate first responders and medical services”.
Syria remains, the UN says, “the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time”. More than half the country’s health facilities have been rendered inoperable; eight million Syrians are displaced within the country; and more than four million are trapped in besieged and inaccessible areas. Last week, the UNHCR launched a appeal to support the more than five million Syrian refugees in need of help (News, 10 November).
This week, the director of World Vision’s Syria Response, Wynn Flaten, described how families in Idlib, the only province still under (largely Islamist) opposition control, were fleeing north to escape violence, and putting “immense strain on an already creaking infrastructure”. Tens of thousands of fighters and civilians have been transferred to Idlib from areas recaptured by government forces, and thousands have been killed in air-strikes as the Syrian army, supported by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian airforce, seeks to regain control.
“We’re working in hospitals providing emergency services for people from the camps and villages outside the city, and midwifery services,” Mr Flaten said. “But one of the oxygen generators has broken, which is making our work extremely difficult.”
The charity is also distributing hygiene kits, and supplies to keep people warm, and is keeping the water supply running. “As ever, our greatest concern is for children caught up in this. Many have been forced to move four or five times amid the relentless violence.”
East Ghouta, a region bordering Damascus, in which an estimated 400,000 people have been almost completely cut off from humanitarian assistance since 2013, has been designated by the UN as the “epicentre” of suffering in Syria. UNICEF estimates that 137 children require immediate medical evacuation for conditions ranging from kidney failure to severe malnutrition and conflict-related injuries. A severely malnourished two-year-old boy was described as having an arm as thin as a little finger.
Mr de Mistura said last week that he had failed to get a “satisfactory” answer from the Syrian government about the need to evacuate the sick from the area. Health care in Damascus is just a half-hour drive away, but cannot be reached without facilitation letters from the government. Other towns, such as Foua and Kefraya, are besieged by opposition groups.
“All parties that are engaged in this terrible war have to find another way, other than killing and weapons and destroying lives,” Mr Nassar said last week. In calling on Christians to aid reconciliation efforts, he does not underestimate the extent of the challenge. “After years of bloodshed, we have hundreds of thousands of people who have died, and millions who have lost their livelihoods and left the country, or were displaced in the country, and that inevitably generates bitterness and anger and this desire to take revenge,” he said.
“We are, after all human beings. . . Nobody can say ‘Don’t be angry; don’t be sad’. . . We need a process to deal with this anger. . . Forgiveness is hard. It is not an easy road to walk.”
Reconciliation and forgiveness “should be based on a process of truth, like what happened in South Africa,” he said. “We need to acknowledge the hurt. . . If we don’t diagnose the illness, we cannot find the medicine.” The Awareness Foundation, which works with young people in Syria through its Ambassadors for Peace programme, was “dedicated to be part of this process,” he said. “It has to be based on acknowledging the atrocities that took place from all sides.”
He welcomed the peace talks taking place in Geneva, and in other locations, as vindication of his repeated calls for dialogue (News, 6 May, 2016). “Today, even those who were stubborn and totally against any kind of dialogue have reached the stage where they believe that military victory is not the road to peace.”
At the end of the Geneva talks last week, Mr de Mistura said that a “golden opportunity” had been missed to decide the future of Syria. One of the goals had been to get warring parties to consider a new constitution, and he was disappointed by the government’s lack of engagement on any issue other than counter-terrorism, in contrast to the opposition, present in a united delegation for the first time.
“As Christmas approaches, we have to remember that we live by hope,” Mr Nadim said, before quoting a verse read out across churches at Christmas: John 1.14.
“When we say ‘The word became flesh’ it reminds us that we need to rely on the word in both senses. I hope and pray this Christmas that those oases of hope, of dialogue about Syria, will set the tone for the end of the war and the age of a new Syria, enjoying peace, harmony, [and] opportunities for all to be citizens of dignity.”