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'You can die any number of ways in Damascus'
"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."
‘You can die any number of ways in Damascus’
With much of the focus on the plight of Chaldean Christian in Iraq and the fight of the US-led coalition against ISIS, the ongoing crisis in Syria has to some extent fallen from the headlines. However, life for Christians—and the majority of Muslims—in the country remains extremely difficult. Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus spoke with international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need about the situation in the Syrian capital.
The war in Syria has now lasted for more than three years. How are the people able to cope?
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 even 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 left. So if we don't help the few that remain, there'll no longer be a Church in Damascus.
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 still working are becoming poor because of the high inflation. And 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. For example, we are running program to make sure the elderly have access to the medication they need.
Please describe 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 any 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. Then again you can die from lack of medical care 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 30 or 40 others. That means ten more will die because they do not receive adequate medical attention. You can also die of malnutrition. If you are a diabetic, for example, and need to stick to a certain diet, but don't get it, you are also at grave risk. 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. Each classroom now has around 60 pupils. Just imagine how that affects the teaching and learning process.
Is it possible to buy food if you have money, or is there simply nothing available?
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. As a result, we eat mainly canned products and non-perishables such as rice or lentils.
Have the war and the distress it causes deepened the faith of your flock?
Yes. There is definite 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 make a point of saying 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 more social work than pastoral work, as we are trying to alleviate the people's distress. There is no other help available. The family is basically the only intact institution. It's the family which helps, shares and supports. People’s identification with their families is very pronounced. Without the family, the situation would be an utter and complete disaster.
Are you able to keep track of the number of your faithful who have left Syria?
No. We don't have any statistics. But the number of people taking the sacraments is falling from year to year—very sharply. In 2012 there were more baptisms and weddings than in 2013. The number of funerals, on the other hand, is rising. There were previous plans to build a kindergarten or a school, but now we are planning for the enlargement of the Christian cemetery.
ACN photo: Archbishop Samir Nassar