Syrians fleeing violence from cities and villages under siege are seeking refuge in Christian churches in neighboring towns.
Christian churches in Syria are caring for at least 6,000 internally displaced people and have formed an outreach service serving thousands more, two priests from Damascus and Homs and a Syrian political activist said.
They provide displaced Syrians of all religious backgrounds with food, medicine and clothing, and have even set up two schools, one in a predominantly Christian village near Homs and another one close to Damascus.
Almost 200 Syrians from Homs are housed in one church in a village that has taken in 400 refugees. A makeshift school for children who cannot return home was built with money donated by Syrians, some of them from abroad. These people cared for by the church are from the Khaldiyeh, Al Qusair and Bab Amr neighborhoods, said Eid, a Homs-based priest.
“Near Damascus, we take refugees from the city and Deir al-Zour and some from other areas. We give help with food, clothing, fans and other things,” he said. “We are also going to open a school.”
In Aleppo, he said, they are in the process of getting a school ready to house people since the churches cannot handle the number of refugees pouring out of Syria’s biggest city and economical hub.
“We have asked the Ministry of Education [for help] and they said they will provide us with an unused school to house refugees in,” said Farouk, a priest and head of relief efforts. The ministry said it would deliver this week, he said, fearing that recent escalations will lead to larger numbers of displaced Syrians seeking refuge.
For the most part, this sort of humanitarian effort has not been met with violence or intimidation from either side of the fighting.
Christians caring for refugees and the churches where aid is provided are left alone, with no interference from the regime, the priests say. Refugees who stay in Christian communities and churches are not further targeted by security forces compared to those who flee to neighboring countries.
“No one is coming from the security services, the regime knows what is going on here and it’s not hidden, but we are not operating in the open so no one objects,” said Eid, who noted that their work was to help all Syrians despite their ethnic or religious background or political orientation.
Eid and Farouk described how their churches helped form a committee to help Syrians in desperate need of help and unable to escape violent areas. “We visit Homs, there is a committee that goes around and ensures people at least have access to basic things, when we can,” said Farouk.
Both priests dismissed recent media reports that suggested Syrian minorities, such as the Christian community, have been violently targeted by Syrian rebels, causing them to flee the country.
Dima, a Christian Syrian activist from Homs, says that the violence in Syria has affected people of all religious backgrounds.
“What’s going on has affected all the people, including the Christians, so far [there have not been any] attacks on Christians from either side, but the violence has affected all the people,” she said. “In Homs and Aleppo the [Christians] are considered to be with the regime, but it’s only to pressure a wider response,” she said, adding that at least six Christians in her Homs neighborhood died in government shelling.
“The Christians are not a group that is going to speak with a collective voice and say they will back the regime or back the rebels, or Free Syrian Army, the opinion, like most Syrians is split. Even in the same household, you might have brothers who are split, or have FSA fighters who have parents that still work for the government; Syria is complex,” she added.
By giving a home to Syrians who have lost everything, the churches hope to help “both sides” think about the future of the country and not their “own needs.”
“The goals are the same for Syrians of all religious backgrounds, and that is a democratic Syria where we all continue to live with each other,” said Eid. “Regime or no regime, we need a united front to move forward or forget, but so far we can’t even sit down and agree on a thing.”
Salam Hafez is a Middle-East based journalist. He has previously worked as an Iraq editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Al Jazeera English, The National, and the Centre for Social Cohesion. More recently he has reported from inside the Syrian uprising as a free-lance correspondent.
(Editor's Note: Names have been shortened in order to protect individuals from possible reprials}