Maronite Bishop Antoine Chbeir heads the Eparchy of Tartus, which is located in a region of Syria on the Mediterranean coast that is under government control. There is no fighting at present, but hardships for the local Christian population persist. The bishop recently spoke with a team dispatched by our organization to assess the situation of Syria’s Christian communities.
What is the situation like at present in Syria?
During these seven years of war we have had moments when the fighting was more intense and moments of lesser intensity. The war is in the hands of the international community. Today it seems that the decision is that nobody is either winning or losing this war, but that the conflict will continue. Today there is new bombing in Damascus, and at other times in Aleppo and Idlib. Many people think that the war will never end. We are losing many lives in the process.
Has the economy improved in the past year?
The economy continues to be very bad, and has even grown worse. In Tartus we have an unemployment rate of 30 percent. In other parts of the country it is 60 percent. Inflation has begun to increase again. Last year a dollar was worth 400 Syrian pounds. Today it is worth around 520. We are providing immediate aid to 30,000 refugees in our eparchy. Given such economic conditions, it is not easy to help them. Those people who do have work are earning barely $60 a month. And so, quite apart from the displaced people, many other people are in need of our help.
What is daily life like today for an average family in your eparchy?
Given the economic situation, people inevitably live in real poverty. It is estimated that around 70 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line today. Every day, we receive numerous requests for help. There are people who need help with heating; others ask us for computers so that they can study or work. Still others ask us to buy them basic tools so that they can work and earn a living. People are hoping that someone will help them to rebuild their lives.
What kind of help do you think is most appreciated by the people you are supporting?
The financial help for the studies of children and young people. And also aid for healthcare, for medicines and medical treatment and even surgery. For example, we had the case of a man who had been confined to his bed because he could not afford an operation. We helped him to get the necessary medical checks and do the necessary paperwork and finally gave him the money to undergo the operation. We are trying to help in every way we can, and above all in order to prevent people from choosing the solution of leaving the country forever—which means, in many cases, risking their lives trying to cross the sea.
What is the reaction of the families you are helping?
Every family has its own particular needs and problems. All of them are very grateful for the help, without which it would be very difficult for them even to keep going. We have teams of aid workers, led by priests and lay people, who visit the families every month to find out what they need. Last month we gave out 2000 food parcels. We also paid the rent for 800 households, funded 900 study grants and helped finance more than 100 surgeries.
Do the displaced people want to return home?
Although a few of them have been able to go home to assess the state of their houses, the general sentiment is to wait and see if things improve. People don’t yet feel safe enough, because there is once again more bombing, above all in Damascus.
When will the war end?
Nobody can say, but what is clear is that the decision is in the hands of the international community, in the hands of Russia, the United States, China and Europe. Last year it looked as though there might be a possibility, but in the end there was no agreement.
Do you have a message for the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN)?
We always pray for you. We recently celebrated the feast of Saint Joseph, and we asked everyone during the celebration of the Eucharist to pray for ACN. Without your help, it would be impossible to continue. We greatly appreciate your aid, especially when you come to visit us. We no longer feel alone.