News

Sydney's Syrian Christians Fear for Lives of Family & Friends

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
4 Oct 2013

Syrian civilians continue to bear the brunt of the violence in the nation's two year bloody civil war

Syrian-born Father Rahal Dergham, Migrant Chaplain to the Archdiocese of Sydney's Syrian and Iraqi community has welcomed the Australian Government's decision to resettle 500 Syrian refugees as part of its humanitarian refugee program.

"The news is a cause for joy and fills us with happiness. When compared with the more than 2 million Syrian refugees now living hand-to-mouth in refugee camps or wherever they can find shelter, and millions more displaced in their own country, 500 is a small number. But this is a start and it fills us with hope," he says.

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR has asked Australia along with 16 other nations including the US, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Germany, Spain, Canada, Switzerland and France to resettle Syrian refugees. Australia has already put its hand up to take 500 along with the US which has agreed to resettle 10,000 Syrian men, women and children. The other nations have already resettled or given sanctuary for two years or more to Syrian refugees, such as Germany, Sweden and Norway are still working out numbers and the quota of refugees they can accept.

Until now the majority of Syria's two million plus refugees forced to flee their nation's bloody violent conflict have lived in crowded refugee camps or makeshift shelters in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.

Syrian Christians in Lebanon have few possessions and were forced to flee with little more than the clothes they were wearing

Officials currently give 750,000 as the number Syrians now living in Lebanon but the figure is believed to be nearer 1.2 million.

This week Lebanon's president, Michael Suleiman told the UN General Assembly that his country was being overwhelmed by the flood of refugees which now make up more than 25% of Lebanon's population. Public services cannot cope and the influx risks driving up poverty, he said.

The university where Albert, one of Fr Rahal's younger brothers, was studying has been bombed and is now closed. Among the hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrian civilians, Albert sought shelter in the Lebanon where UN officials have told him he will have to spend the next two years relying on food parcels and charity before he can receive any sort of official papers and be eligible for reassessment.

Determined to help his brother and other siblings and bring them to safety in Australia, Fr Rahal has been in constant touch with the Australian Department of Immigration and the Catholic Immigration Office over the past two years but believes without his brother Albert and the others having the proper papers and documents this looks increasingly unlikely.

Christians in danger from Muslim extremists in midst of Syrian uprising

He would also like to bring his ageing parents here, but even though they are in constant danger, they have so far refused to leave their homeland.

"Life for them is grim. There are food shortages, no electricity, nothing in the shops and no one in work. It is a terrible situation. But my parents are reluctant to leave.

They love Syria and the village where they live. This is where we all grew up and is filled with memories they cherish. That is why they stay. But there is no safety in Syria. Not anymore."

He also fears his parents will become targets of the rebel militias.

Christians particularly Catholics are at great risk in Syria from jihadist rebel militias.

Islamic Extremists have taken over many rebel militias in Syria's civil war

Throughout the 30-month conflict, bishops and priests have been killed or kidnapped. Nuns have been humiliated and dragged through the streets. Churches burned, Catholic schools and institutions destroyed or taken over, and Christian areas in Aleppo and the major cities along with Christian-owned shops and businesses razed to the ground.

"The militias are not fighting for democracy," Fr Rahal says.

While the uprising in Syria began as a fight for democracy, Islamic extremists have hi jacked the conflict and are intent on creating a Muslim state under strict Sharia law.

"What we are now seeing is a religious war with Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign Muslim extremists backed by wealthy governments such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, fighting to take control and install their own hardline brand of Sunni Islam," he says.

Syrian children in a crowded refugee camp in Jordan

Fr Rahal cites one of many appalling atrocities committed by jihadist militias where a 34-year-old Christian was beheaded then his body fed to dogs. 

"All he had done to be given this terrible fate was to have a brother who had referred to the militia as 'bandits'," he says adding that many of these foreign extremist militias have become a law unto themselves, a rag-tag army with no real leader free to kill, plunder and rape at will.

Fr Rahal is hoping the 500 Syrian refugees to be resettled in Australia will include Syrian Christians who desperately need protection, not only in Syria itself but within the over-crowded refugee camps where they continue to face persecution and danger from a section of their Muslim hardliners.

There is little safety for Christians in the camps, he says.

Australia has so far provided financial support for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian crisis as well as support for humanitarian activities in neighbouring countries where more than 2 million displaced Syrians struggle to survive.  Scott Morrison, Minister for Immigration says the 500 Syrians to be resettled here will be part of the Government's annual intake of 13,750 refugees Australia takes each year on humanitarian grounds.

The first group of Syrian refugees are expected to arrive before the end of the year.