July 22, 2013

The Christian population in Syria faces a threat of being "wiped out," says CNEWA Canada (Catholic Near East Welfare Association) national secretary Carl Hétu.

"It's become a Sunni/Shia battleground and that's not going to go away soon," said Hétu. "The big losers are the Christians."

That's why CNEWA is focusing its assistance on supporting the churches in Syria, while Caritas groups such as the latest initiatives by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are well-positioned to help refugees fleeing the conflict.

The civil war between the majority Sunni population, backed by outside jihadists from Chechnya and Saudi Arabia, and the minority Shi'ite, backed by Hezbollah and Iran shows no sign of dying down, Hétu said.

The Shi'ite groups have been backing the Assad government. It's become a "melting pot of rebels fighting each other" and the Assad regime, Hétu said.

Under Assad, Syria's 2.2 million Christians experienced relative accommodation and peace for their churches. That did not mean the Christians supported the regime, merely that they learned to co-exist, he said.

"The Church in the Middle East is in survival mode, whether under the Ottoman Empire, or dictatorship, it has always adapted to the reality of the time, to play its humanitarian role," he said.

That humanitarian role is why the support of the churches is crucial, he said. "Christians are the only ones that are bringing in aid regardless of creed," he said. That's why the work of Caritas groups is important in that they are helping Muslim refugee camps, providing an important witness of compassion.

"Our focus is on the Christian refugees in Syria who are not in the camps," he said. "Our entire preoccupation is on working with and through and for the local churches that are there."

By supporting Christians, CNEWA is supporting the Church's important social role in running orphanages, schools, clinics, hospitals and other programs, he said. These Christians works do not exclude Muslims.


In a recent meeting in June of the Congregation of Eastern Churches, Hétu heard from representatives from both Syria and Egypt. No one thinks the fighting in Syria will calm down soon, he said. "Prayer is very important. There's a need for divine intervention."

Everyone agrees that sending in troops from Western nations or the United States would make things worse, he said.

In Egypt in the wake of a military coup that deposed the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, the future may be somewhat brighter for Christians there than in Syria, Hétu said.

As in Syria, Christians make up about 10 per cent of Egypt's 85 million people, roughly eight to 10 million people. That makes them able to defend themselves but still vulnerable, Hétu said.


The patriarchs of the Catholic and the Orthodox Copts are working together in a new spirit of ecumenism, uniting the Christians, he said. Christian leaders are working "hand in hand" with Muslims who reject the repressive regime the Muslim Brotherhood were imposing on Egypt.

"The work of CNEWA is focusing on sustaining, helping and working with the local Catholic Coptic Church of Egypt," Hétu said. That includes supporting their seminary, their seminarians, and religious in formation.

CNEWA also supports the churches' work in education, social services, health care, help for children, especially orphans and efforts to maintain the Christian identity through catechesis and "exchange programs where youth and families can get together to affirm their faith in these troubled times."