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In Aleppo, Syria, Christians 'are fearful like never before'
"Can you imagine the suffering their bereaved families are going through? Those who have survived are deeply wounded inwardly, in the depths of their soul. But we have grown accustomed to the bombs and to death. People keep going, with God's help."
By Oliver Maksan
ALEPPO, Syria—"Pray for Aleppo. People are fearful as never before in recent years." Such were the words of Armenian Catholic Sister Annie Demerjian, as she reported on the worsening situation in what just a few years ago was Syria’s commercial hub—but today is city in utter distress.
"People are afraid of heavy fighting,” she told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need,” adding that “thousands have already left the city, both Christian and Muslim. We are preparing ourselves for the worst.”
Aleppo is contested by both the Syrian regime and opposition forces, and there is a growing involvement of jihadist forces, including ISIS fighters. The city’s Christian quarter of Suleymaniye was bombed over Easter weekend, leaving 15 dead and numerous wounded.
Sister Demerjian said: “Christians are taking with them everything they can carry and are seeking refuge in the coastal region or in the ‘Valley of the Christians.’ I do not know how many have already left, but there are many thousands of them. The Christian quarters have noticeably emptied out.
"The Christians of Aleppo are still in shock today, so heavy were the Easter attacks. People are startled in fear at every loud noise. Many people once again found themselves living among the ruins. One woman saw her own children lying motionless among the rubble, but fortunately, they had survived. But others lost their lives in the attacks. On Easter Sunday we buried many of our brothers and sisters. We hurried from one funeral to the next. It was so sad.
"One entire family was wiped out; another family lost their mother and two sons. The force of the explosion flung one of the sons out of the house, killing him, his body hanging on the power cables. His mother and brother were blown to bits by the bombs. Their relatives are still finding parts of the bodies among the rubble and burying them.
“Can you imagine the suffering their bereaved families are going through? Those who have survived are deeply wounded inwardly, in the depths of their soul. But we have grown accustomed to the bombs and to death. People keep going, with God's help."
For years now, Sister Demerjian and her team have been providing the embattled residents of Aleppo with the basic necessities of everyday life, such as food and clothing, which is made possible by donors in the West. "It gives the people here a little bit of security and hope to know that they have not been forgotten.”
The Melkite patriarchate in Damascus has reported that the Easter bombardments were carried out by extremist groups, including Islamic State and the Al-Nusra Front. According to the patriarchate, prior to the Syrian civil war there were 18,000 Melkite faithful in Aleppo alone. Today there are believed to remain no more than 12,000 in the city. But accurate numbers are not available.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which supports the work of Sister Demerjian, has been particularly active in helping in the Middle East. Since the end of 2011, the organization has given some $15M to help the Christians in Syria and Iraq. Recently, ACN committed $2.8M to Syria, an aid package that included support for the Christians of Aleppo.
Sister Demerjian with one of her charges in Aleppo; ACN photo