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 ACN eye-witness account shows how crisis in Syria has deepened

 By Oliver Maksan and Clare Creegan

A call to redouble efforts to help Syrian refugees ahead of the winter has been made by the Middle East projects coordinator of a leading Catholic charity during a visit to the country. Father Andrzej Halemba, head of the Middle East projects section of Aid to the Church in Need, highlighted the ongoing need for the Catholic charity’s emergency and pastoral work in Syria, saying that it had helped people to survive. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has given over eight million euros in aid to the people in Syria since the outbreak of the war four years ago. It currently supports some 140 humanitarian and pastoral projects.

Speaking from Syria, Fr Halemba said: “My impression, after several visits since the beginning of this year, is one of increasing concern about the ever greater instability in Syria.

The military success of Daesh (ISIS)] causes fear and anxiety especially among the Christians. The future of the city of Aleppo, where many Christians still live, is uncertain.”

Fr Halemba said ACN’s project partners in the region are working for the good of the people “in an ever more efficient and coordinated way”. He said: “When I was in the Christian town of Marmarita near the Lebanese border, the gratitude for the aid that our benefactors have made possible was overwhelming. The people said that our benefactors had made it possible for them to survive. “One boy, when we met, only said one word in Arabic: shukran; thank you. Everyone was very moved by that. An old woman pleaded with me, with tears in her eyes, to go on helping the Christians in Syria so that they could stay.”

Marmarita is now home to many internally-displaced refugees, both Christian and Muslim.  At the start of the war in spring 2011, Syria had 1.25 million Christians but today the European Union estimates that up to 700,000 Christians have fled abroad to escape the conflict. Although relatively safe from bombing, the cost of living in the town has risen and the displaced people living there do not have any work.

Fr Halemba is particularly concerned about the effect the coming winter will have on displaced families. He said that gas and fuel were in very short supply and were very expensive, adding “Last year some 50 people died from the cold. We will therefore need to pay particular attention to aid for the winter.”

Neville Kyrke-Smith, Aid to the Church in Need (UK) National Director, echoed Fr Halemba’s comments that more help is needed to help those that have remained behind in Syria. Highlighting Middle East emergency and pastoral projects being paid out by the UK section of ACN, he said: “Having been to refugee camps in Iraq and in Lebanon close to the border with Syria, I know how important the help of ACN is for people who are stranded and who are totally dependent on the help of others.

He went on to say “It is vital to sustain that help and support. There are many displaced and refugees who want to go back. Christians are important bridge-builders in the Middle East and we want to help them continue to play their important role in the birthplace of Christianity.”