28 March 2019
On the road outside Rableh, Syria, visitors see the extent of the damage from years of war.
We received the following report a few days ago from our regional director in Beirut, Lebanon, Michel Constantin:
To better assess and evaluate the current situation in Syria — now that the regime’s forces have regained control of more than 75 percent of the country and secured the major cities and rural areas — CNEWA-Pontifical Mission visited our partners so as to touch base with the beneficiaries of our aid and the volunteers who are work on behalf of the church.
Our plan was to visit three areas: the capital of Damascus; the central city of Homs and Tartus on the coast; and finally, Aleppo, where we were asked to participate in a special synod of the churches organized locally to discuss the challenges facing the Christian community there, once the largest Christian community in the Middle East.
Unfortunately, the visit to Aleppo was canceled for security reasons. On the same day we were scheduled to travel there, heavy shelling targeted downtown Aleppo. Nevertheless, we were able to follow the work of the meetings and we were updated on the findings and recommendations.
What follows are our impressions and findings:
Military attacks continue to decrease, especially since the areas under the opposition or the extremists are now very restricted to one area in the northwest of the country (Edlib and the surrounding area, controlled by the extremist militia of Al Nusra) and the northeast (east of the Euphrates River under the Kurdish militias supported mainly by the United States). However, this stability should not be confused with long-term peace, which some question as doubtful. Some observers fear fragmentation and the ethnic cleansing of areas that fall either to government or Kurdish control. This could spin out of control, for example, should both parties face each other in battle around Deir Ezzor. This is particularly dangerous, as each side is backed by different outside powers.
The territorial defeat of ISIS does not mean it will cease to exist. Rather, it is likely to adapt its strategy, continue underground, and use more guerrilla and terrorist tactics. The problem in Syria is not just ISIS, but the lack of inclusive governance and equal opportunities in the country. These are the root causes that enabled ISIS to grow. The organization is not a cause but a consequence of the underlying political situation. As a result, the defeat of ISIS will not lead to the end of the conflict in Syria. If the root causes are not addressed, the conflict is likely to continue. In addition, new conflicts and new extremist groups might arise.
On the other hand, in the aftermath of the war and with the absence of a clear and united opposition, any political process without a clear strategy carries risks. A power vacuum — or political, ethnic or sectarian tensions — could become a source of renewed conflict, which may lead to the further destabilization of the region.
Socially and economically, the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria — and the resulting rupture of socioeconomic ties inflicted on the nation’s economy — has seriously damaged the infrastructure. It has reversed or significantly slowed not only the development of Syria itself, but also of its neighbors — first of all Lebanon and Jordan — as well as Turkey. This has exacerbated the situation in these states and has created new risks.
The streets of Homs are showing signs of life. (photo: CNEWA)
Conditions need to be created for the return of refugees and the restoration of life-support systems. These can bring not only humanitarian or economic dividends, but also political and strategic ones. But despite the improvement of the security situation in many areas, international experience shows that the absence of fighting is rarely the trigger for return of the displaced people. Numerous other factors are involved. These include:
Loss of human capital. The number of people lost to injury, death or emigration is staggering, and it will create permanent hardship for generations of Syrians. The decrease in the quality and quantity of public services — due to international sanctions on one hand and the absence of the qualified staff on the other — is clearly shown in schools, universities and especially in hospitals and other medical services. It is important to mention that more than 90 percent of available services in the country are public services. Moreover, many on the ground are saying that the highly qualified personnel who left Syria for other countries during the war were often granted citizenship rights. This means they were integrated into the society and the economy, and it makes their return to Syria unlikely, if not almost impossible
Security and socioeconomic conditions. Economic sanctions against Syria and its ally Iran impact directly the situation for Syrians on the ground. For there to be any improvement, sanctions must be eased, if not lifted altogether, reported local church leaders. The severe shortage of basic supplies, such as electricity, fuel and gas, has made it difficult to produce and export products for external markets, cutting off Syria from the flow of cash and imports. Until there is a change in the status of sanctions, post-conflict life will be much harder on the remaining population and will delay the return of the more than 5.6 million Syrians registered as refugees outside the country.
During our visit, we were in contact with school teachers and other civil servants who reported that their salaries have lost most of their purchasing power, falling more than 800 percent, from $600 per month before 2011 to $72 in 2019. And when we inquired regarding the need to continue with some emergency activities, we were told that sometimes even buying a bottle of vegetable oil would represent a challenge. More seriously, others informed us that some people lost their lives because they were not able to pay for the cost of dialysis treatment, which costs on average $25 per session.
Access to property and assets. Law No. 10 of 2018 established the concept of “renovation zones,” which put conditions on residents who want to return to their properties. They must present their deeds or proof of ownership within a certain short time period, or risk losing everything. Knowing that already many deeds were lost, the public perceived this step very negatively and many consider it a threat. There is much uncertainty.
28 March 2019
Tags: Syria ISIS
In this image from July 2018, a man walks next to a destroyed building in Aleppo, Syria. Syria claims Israel attacked Aleppo Wednesday — this, as concerns are growing about a humanitarian crisis in the country in the wake of the collapse of ISIS. (photo: CNS/Ghith Sy, EPA)
Syria: Israeli air attack targeted Aleppo (Al Jazeera) The Syrian military said Israel on Wednesday launched raids on an industrial zone in the northern city of Aleppo, causing damage only to materials, while opposition sources said the attack hit Iranian ammunitions stores and a military airport used by Tehran’s forces…
Humanitarian crisis emerging in Syria in the wake of ISIS (National Geographic) The International Rescue Committee estimated that more than 5,000 women and children, fleeing the fighting between Syrian forces and remnants of the Islamic State, arrived at al-Hol camp in one 48 hour period in early March. Since December, nearly 60,000 have arrived at the camp, pushing the camp to its breaking point, aid workers have said. About 100, mostly children, have died either en route to the camp or shortly after arriving, due to acute malnutrition, pneumonia, hypothermia, and diarrhea, according to the International Rescue Committee. These new refugees join more than 65 million refugees worldwide, now more than at any time since World War II, according to the United Nations…
Bishops: Indian voters must avoid ‘terror of pseudo-nationalism’ (UCANews.com) Ahead of the general elections in India in April, Church officials have issued pastoral guidelines asking Catholics to reject candidates who espouse certain ideologies and vote for guardians of secularism and democracy. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, joined other regional bishops in issuing a set of guidelines…
Pope offers prayers for flood victims in Iran (Vatican News) Pope Francis expressed his sorrow for the loss of life, injury and damage caused by flash floods in northern Iran that have killed at least 26 people. In a telegram, signed on his behalf by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Pope Francis on Wednesday conveyed his heartfelt solidarity with all those affected and said he is praying for the deceased...
27 March 2019
Tags: Syria India Iran
Young adults are seen during a workshop in a Beirut church at the 2019 International Ecumenical Youth Meeting organized and sponsored by the Churches of Lebanon, the Middle East Council of Churches and the monastic Community of Taize. (photo: CNS/Middle East Council of Churches)
Amid all the violence of the world, religions must be factors of peace, Brother Alois Leser, prior of the Taize community, told Christian and Muslim young adults from 43 countries.
More than 1,600 Muslims and Christians gathered in Beirut to celebrate the feast of the Annunciation on 25 March in a ceremony punctuated by songs, prayers, reflections and speeches. They were encouraged to respect others to foster genuine interreligious dialogue.
The Beirut gathering was part of the 22-26 March International Ecumenical Youth Meeting, organized and sponsored by the churches of Lebanon, the Middle East Council of Churches and the monastic Community of Taize. For the Annunciation encounter -- at which participants observed a minute of silence for victims of violence around the world -- the young people were joined by various Muslim religious officials and clerics; Lebanese government representatives; the papal nuncio; Christian and Orthodox prelates and religious; and brothers from the French-based Taize ecumenical community.
Lebanon has observed the Marian solemnity of the Annunciation as a joint Christian-Muslim feast and a national holiday since 2010.
Brother Alois noted that for Christians and Muslims, “Mary is an example of a believer. With confidence, Mary surrendered herself to the will of God.”
He also told them, “At this time when our world is often shaken by violent events, it is fundamental to do everything to express that religions do not want violence, but seek to be factors of peace, friendship and fraternity among all human beings.”
He said that, in the Gospel, “Jesus went beyond the cultural, social and religious barriers of his time to enter into relationships with people who were not his people, who did not share his faith.”
“Allowing fraternity and friendship to grow implies respecting others in their difference,” he stressed. “In any genuine interreligious dialogue, an attitude of respect should keep us from wanting to force the other person to think as we do.”
Brother Alois’ speech was followed by a Muslim girls’ chorus singing about the Annunciation.
Sabine Adrien, a 28-year-old Catholic who participated in the meeting with seven other young adults from Lyon, France, told Catholic News Service: “I loved the gathering, especially the prayer between Christians and Muslims. It was very simple and beautiful, all of us praying together around Mary.
“It was especially touching to be in Lebanon to experience this because it’s a country of contrasts and coexistence,” Adrien said, observing that it is “sometimes (a) difficult coexistence between religions and between sects within each religion.”
Workshops and sessions at the ecumenical meeting -- at the main seaside event venue as well as in various churches in Beirut -- focused on issues related to coexistence and interfaith dialogue, as well as rituals and traditions of the Eastern churches.
Speaking to participants during a 23 March evening prayer service, Soraya Bechealany, secretary-general of the Middle East Council of Churches, said: “This gathering proves to you that the Christian presence is an integral part of the Middle East. Young people of the Middle East, you are involved in the preservation of human freedom and its dignity.”
That evening, Brother Alois told participants that “Lebanon can be a gateway of understanding between East and West.”
The relations between the Taize community and Lebanon date back to the early 1980s, when the late Brother Roger Schutz -- who founded the monastic community in 1940 -- visited the country as its civil war was still raging.
“We believe and see that the power of peace in this country is stronger than anything else,” Brother Alois said.
27 March 2019
Tags: Lebanon Muslim Interfaith
In this image from August 2018, an aerial view shows a partially submerged road in the Indian state of Kerala. Many in the country want the upcoming election in India to focus on climate change. (photo: CNS/Sivaram V, Reuters)
Following 2018 floods, Kerala residents want climate change to dominate election (NDTV.com) With memories of last year’s devastating floods still fresh in the minds of people of Kerala, they want the issue of climate change to be a dominant theme of the electoral discourse in the run-up to Lok Sabha polls beginning 11 April. A total of 483 people died in the August 2018 floods, which were the state’s worst in a century…
Syria requests urgent UN meeting on Golan Heights (The Jerusalem Post) The Syrian mission to the United Nations is urging the U.N. Security Council to call a meeting regarding President Donald Trump’s decision to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A U.N. official toldThe Jerusalem Post he estimated a meeting on this matter would take place in the upcoming weeks…
Voting to go ahead on Holy Thursday in India (UCANews.com) Voters in 13 Indian states will go to polling stations on Maundy Thursday in parliamentary elections after the High Court in Tamil Nadu state dismissed a petition from church officials to reschedule the date. The federal Election Commission has scheduled polling in 97 constituencies of 13 states on 18 April when Christians observe Maundy Thursday this year, starting their Easter Triduum leading to Good Friday and Easter…
Pope’s visit to Morocco shows ’Christians and Muslims are not enemies’ (Crux) Even though Abdellah Redouane has spent the past 20 years of his life as the director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Italy, the Morocco-born man can’t disguise his hope for the upcoming 30-31 March papal visit to his homeland. ”This is not just a regular visit,” Redouane told Crux on Tuesday. “I believe it’s particularly important because 99 percent of the population in Morocco is Muslim. Inviting the pope, who is the leader of the Catholic religion, is something important, and we must thank those who worked to organize this visit…”
Jewish artifacts found in Arab neighborhood of Jerusalem (The Jerusalem Post) 2,000-year-old olive and wine presses, a burial cave and mikvah from the descendants of the Maccabees were found in a south Jerusalem neighborhood…
26 March 2019
Tags: Syria India Jerusalem Israel
Salwa Salem Copty, 70, holds a photo of her father, Fares, in front of the Melkite Catholic Church of St. Jacob in Ma’alul village, Israel. Salwa, who now lives in Cana, is fighting for the right to visit her father’s grave in the Ma’alul cemetery, which is now enclosed in an Israeli army base.
(photo: CNS/Debbie Hill)
The destroyed Arab village of Ma’alul, located just outside of Nazareth, does not appear on any Israeli map, but it is etched on Salwa Salem Copty’s heart.
Copty’s widowed mother and her three older siblings, along with other residents, were expelled from the village in July 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence. Copty was born 16 days later.
Copty laments that she has no memories of Ma’alul, but she clings to the stories her relatives have told her about what life was like there. Now, at age 70, she still visits the site of the village, drinking coffee and eating pastries with her children and grandchildren in the shadow of the reconstructed Melkite Catholic Church of St. Jacob.
But she is unable to visit her father’s grave because an Israeli air force base was constructed around the Christian cemetery shortly after the residents’ expulsion, and they have never been permitted to enter the base to go to the cemetery. Her father was killed a few months prior to the expulsion by a Jewish militia bullet and is buried in the cemetery.
“They told me father was in heaven and I would look at his picture and would see a cloud in the sky that looked like the picture, and I would think that my father is looking at me and is speaking to me, and I would talk to him,” said Copty, a retired social worker. She has enlarged the photograph of her father and keeps it in her home, still confiding her deepest worries and concerns to it.
“I am appealing to all sense of humanity for this request to visit the grave. I want to whisper on his grave, as if he will hear that he has a daughter named Salwa who misses him, just to touch the grave, the dust, his soul, the place where he walked, even where maybe he stepped. That drives me crazy,” she said.
Since 2000, Copty repeatedly has made formal requests to gain access to the cemetery to visit her family members buried there, but her appeals to various Israeli authorities through multiple channels have gone unhandled.
“I dream about this grave. I’m begging. I just want to visit my father’s grave before I die and it’s too late,” Copty said. “You can’t just erase someone’s memory.”
On 13 January Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, filed a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of Copty and her 93-year-old uncle, Subhi Mansour, to allow them to visit the cemetery. Mansour is the only living displaced resident of the village who can identify the location of the grave of Copty’s father, Fares Salem.
The petition, which will be heard by the court 24 June, was filed against the Israeli defense and interior ministries and the Israel Land Authority and demands that Copty and Mansour be permitted to visit the cemetery. The petition also seeks clarification regarding why the Interior Ministry and ILA have not been required to preserve Ma’alul’s Christian cemetery and protect it from desecration or, alternatively, why it is not allowing the petitioners or anyone on their behalf to maintain and protect the cemetery from desecration.
“The desecration of and failure to maintain the cemetery, and the failure of Israeli authorities to respond to Copty’s appeals within an appropriate and humane time frame, are all violations of the constitutional right to dignity -- both of the living and of the deceased -- and a violation of her right to grieve at the family grave,” Adalah said in the petition.
This is the first time a case relating to access to a cemetery located inside a military base has been brought to court.
The government ministries did not reply to requests for a response from Catholic News Service.
Mansour told CNS: “We haven’t been able to visit the cemetery since 1948. ... It’s not just us, everyone has family buried in the cemetery. Everyone should be able to visit their dead, place flowers on their graves.”
Copty’s oldest daughter, Odna -- which means “return” in Arabic -- accompanies her mother on visits.
“Because I have this name, I feel this village is always with me,” she said. “I always live my mother’s pain and suffering. Sometimes I wake up at night and she is crying to the picture.”
Along with the other descendants of the expelled families, Copty and her family return to St. Jacob Church, which they restored, on the second day of Easter for Mass, and her children attended the yearly summer camps held at the site to remember their village.
Today the remains of the destroyed village are overgrown, and the overturned rocks peek out from under rolling mounds of green grass, which has sprouted after a rainy winter, but Mansour can still point out where he lived and where Copty’s parents lived. He identifies one of the village’s wells amid the jumbled rocks.
Together with another niece who is an engineer, Mansour recently mapped out the pre-1948 village and, next to the church, they placed a large sign of the area marked with every family’s home.
They also placed name markers next to every pile of rubble to identify the homes on the ground, but someone tore down all the name signs.
26 March 2019
Tags: Israel Melkite
In this image from 2016, Syrian refugees stand in snow outside their tents in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. Lebanon's president says many Syrian refugees in his country today may end up migrating to Europe. (CNS photo/Lucie Parsaghian, EPA)
Lebanon president: wave of refugees may soon flood Europe (TASS) The economic situation in Lebanon, which provides shelter for 1.5 million Syrian refugees, may push them toward migration to Europe, Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Tuesday at a meeting with State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin…
Kerala bishops will not support any political party in elections (Business Standard) The Kerala Catholic Bishops Conference (KCBC) declared Tuesday that it will not support any political party in the Lok Sabha elections but will be with those who “protect democracy and secularism”. Kerala goes to the polls on 23 April to elect 20 Lok Sabh candidates. A circular issued by KCBC President Archbishop Soosa Pakiam said: “KCBC wishes to make it clear that they will not support any political front or political party or any candidate. We do not wish to interfere in the freedom of our laity…
Russian businesses wary of Syrian reconstruction (Al Monitor) On 24 March, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin met in Moscow with Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, the UN Development Program’s director of the regional bureau for Europe, and David Akopyan, the UNDP’s country director in Syria. The Russian Foreign Ministry reported, “UNDP representatives in Syria have informed us about the current state of affairs in Syria’s early reconstruction and about the results achieved in the context of the implementation of projects with Russia’s donor participation aimed at rebuilding residential areas and basic infrastructure in Syria…”
Gaza tense after heavy fire overnight (AP) Israeli aircraft bombed targets across the Gaza Strip and Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the second day of cross-border fighting that erupted in the last stretch of a closely contested race for Israeli prime minister between the long-serving incumbent and an ex-army chief…
Jerusalem becomes most accessible ancient city in the world (Israel Today) The Old City of Jerusalem and its walls are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore are subject to special preservation rules designed to present the city and its heritage to its visitors, while developing and upgrading it to the benefit of its residents. The Old City is the most visited place in Israel with about 10 million visitors each year. A new accessibility plan costing over 20 million shekels was recently implemented by the East Jerusalem Development Company, with funding coming from the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs, the Jerusalem Development Authority, the Ministry of Tourism, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israel Antiquities Authority. It was an innovative and groundbreaking project that now enables the disabled to enjoy the historic and cultural wealth of the city…
25 March 2019
Tags: Syria India Lebanon Jerusalem
A teenager looks on as Pope Francis smiles during his visit to the Sanctuary of the Holy House on the feast of the Annunciation in Loreto, Italy, on 25 March 2019. (photo: CNS/Yara Nardi, Reuters)
25 March 2019
Tags: Pope Francis
In this image from August 2018, young Syrian refugees are seen atop a vehicle at a camp in June in the village of Arsal, Lebanon. The head of Caritas Lebanon has expressed concern that Syrian refugees will end up forgotten and abandoned by the world community.
(photo: CNS/Nabil Mounzer, EPA)
Caritas leader expresses concern that Syrian refugees will become forgotten (AsiaNews) The “risk” is that Syrian refugees “will become like Palestinians, abandoned for decades” on Lebanese territory. This “is the great fear” of the majority of the citizens of the land of the Cedars, who “are close to those who need” but, at the same time, “cannot solve all of the problems and are themselves experiencing great suffering,” says the Rev. Paul Karam, president of Caritas Lebanon…
Bishop criticizes Catholics who spread fear of Muslims (CNS) An Irish bishop has criticized Catholics who identify as “faith-filled” while spreading fear and mistrust of immigrants, particularly those who are Muslims. Bishop Kevin Doran of Elphin, chairman of the Council for Life of the Irish bishops’ conference, told The Irish Catholic newspaper: “I’ve found that people who would classify themselves in some cases as traditional Catholics and faith-filled people seem to, in relation to migration and care of asylum-seekers and stuff, they’ll say ‘oh well these Muslims are putting our civilization at risk and they pose a threat to us…’”
Iraq ferry accident sets off political upheaval (The New York Times) In a rare show of deference to the anger of Mosul citizens over government abuses, the Iraqi Parliament on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to remove the province’s governor, citing accusations of corruption, self-dealing and negligence. Although Mosul citizens had pleaded with the central government to remove the governor for more than two years, it was only after a ferry disaster brought angry citizens into the street that senior political figures decided to act…
Nuns, priests in India concerned over income tax order (UCANews.com) Church people in India’s Tamil Nadu state are seeking legal ways to counter a High Court order that asked priests and nuns to pay income tax if they draw a salary from state-funded educational institutions. The 20 March order in the southern state ended a long-time practice that exempted Catholic priests, brothers and nuns from paying tax on their salaries on grounds that they donate their salaries to religious homes or dioceses engaged in social services…
East Jerusalem neighborhood targeted in apparent hate crime (The Jerusalem Post) Police opened a probe into a suspected hate crime targeting a Palestinian section in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of East Jerusalem, where residents woke up Monday to discover over 25 vehicles vandalized. On a number of the cars in the French Hill neighborhood, red Stars of David were graffitied and on an adjacent wall the Hebrew phrase, “Jews wake up, Jewish blood is not cheap.” Tires were also slashed on several vehicles…
22 March 2019
Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Muslim
In Ethiopia’s Afar region, girls wait to fill containers at the local water pump. The United Nations marks World Water Day on 22 March. In a message for the day, Pope Francis declared that access to water is "a fundamental human right." (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
22 March 2019
Tags: Pope Francis Ethiopia United Nations
President Trump's tweet calling to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights has sparked widespread condemnation. (video: DW News/YouTube)
Trump’s Golan tweet inflames tensions (The Washington Post) Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies slammed President Trump’s call to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Friday, inflaming regional tensions at a time when the Trump administration is seeking to curtail Iran’s expanding influence. A statement by Syria’s Foreign Ministry said the move would increase Syria’s determination to recover the territory occupied by Israel “by all available means,” and Russia and Iran both said it violated international law. Turkey, a U.S. ally, said it risked creating a new Middle East crisis…
Pope releases message for World Water Day (Vatican News) World Water Day is commemorated annually on 22 March as a way of concentrating efforts to resolve the water crisis that afflicts people, often the poorest, around the world. Pope Francis marked the Day on Friday with a message to the Director General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, José Graziano da Silva. “Water is an essential asset for the equilibrium of ecosystems and human survival, and it must be managed and cared for so that it is not polluted or lost,” he said…
Women in Iraq push to criminalize domestic violence (Al Jazeera) Domestic violence has been on the rise in Iraq, with women’s groups blaming instability and the break down of law and order. However, there has been a growing awareness of the issue at the highest levels of government and the women’s rights groups are hopeful that the legislature will finally pass a law criminalizing what they see as a “national crisis”…
Leaders in India target politicians who exploit religious differences for votes (UCANews.com) Groups of Indians including Christians are on a campaign to popularize a “manifesto against hate” aiming to block political efforts to garner votes by dividing citizens on religious lines though hate speeches. Indians are set to elect members to their 543-seat national parliament in a seven-phase election from 11 April 11 to 19 May. The world’s largest democratic exercise has almost 900 million eligible voters, an estimated 80 percent of them Hindus…
Tags: Syria India Pope Francis Israel