ZAHLÉ, Lebanon – For six years, ending a bloody civil war that broke out in Syria in 2011 has defied the best efforts of both diplomats and military strategists alike. Yet stopping the fighting might turn out to be the easy part, compared to rebuilding the trust between Christians and Muslims which, in many ways, was the war’s first casualty.
“I can never forgive them, never,” said Victoria, a Syrian refugee from outside Aleppo and mother of two currently living in a Church-subsidized apartment in Zahlé, Lebanon, in the country’s central Bekaa region.
The subsidy is made possible by Aid to the Church in Need, a papal foundation supporting persecuted Christians around the world.
Victoria asked that her last name not be used, since her husband, Abed, disappeared while on a job in Syria shortly before the family fled, and in case he’s still alive, she worries he might suffer reprisals. Long-term she wants to make a new future for herself and her family “anywhere in the West,” she said, with her present destination of choice being Australia.
“Our Muslim neighbors attacked us when the fighting started,” she said. “I can’t forgive them. They destroyed everything we had.”
Victoria was emphatic that even if peace returned to Syria, she’d find it “impossible” to live with the same neighbors without constantly fearing the same thing could happen again.
Sana Samia, who’s responsible for fundraising and project management for the Greek Melkite Archdiocese of Zahlé, said one aim of their refugee support efforts is to help Christians who want to return home when the time is right to be able to do so successfully, and, beyond education and employment, that also means being prepared to co-exist constructively with Muslims.
“They have to learn to trust again,” Samia said, “but it’s extremely difficult because of everything they’ve seen and experienced.”
By its own standards, the archdiocese’s commitment to aiding refugees is massive, amounting to a total outlay of about $2 million every year, according to Father Elian Chaar, who oversees the church’s finances.
In turn, that’s a reflection of the scale of the overall refugee crisis in the country, since Lebanon is now home to a refugee population officially estimated at 1.5 million, although some believe the real total is much higher, on top of a native population of just over 4 million. As California Congressman Darrell Issa pointed out in a recent hearing on Lebanon, it’s as if the United States were suddenly forced to accommodate 100 million refugees.
Chaar said the $2 million expense represents roughly a 65 percent increase in the archdiocese’s humanitarian assistance budget from six years ago, with much of it coming from Aid to the Church in Need.
The local church under Archbishop Isaam John Darwish is doing what it can to promote good relations between Muslims and Christians. The archdiocesan hospital, Tel Chiha, treats both Muslims and Christians without distinction, even making accommodations for Muslim patients to meet their dietary and privacy needs, and Darwish himself works through NGOs running local Muslim-dominated refugee camps to provide aid.
Whatever amount the local Church and international donors lay out, however, the trust deficit may be hard to overcome.
Rana, who also asked to withhold her last name, is a mother of three children aged nine, five, and one. In terms of personality, she’s a bubbly, happy person, despite living in a cramped one-room apartment with a tiny kitchen, where worn mattresses have to be pulled out at night on the floor to allow everyone to sleep.
It’s rare to see Rana when she’s not smiling, and she’s got a ready laugh. Yet when you ask if she can forgive the Muslims who attacked her, she turns suddenly somber, and the “no” she delivers is emphatic.
“They stabbed us in the back,” she said, referring to her Muslim neighbors in her Syrian village, saying that she fled to Zahlé precisely because it’s known for having a strong Christian majority.
“We were living peacefully with them, but they planned [the attack] under the table,” she said. “When the war started, they came after us.”
“We lived together in the same place,” Rana said, “but they had hatred for us and lied to us.”
She said she watched as people with whom she had lived and worked her entire life started streaming to rallies and calling for Christians to be eliminated, and they watched them loot Christian homes that had been targeted.
“I’ll never trust them again,” she said.
Moreover, Rana said, that mistrust is now generalized to all Muslims. By choice, she has no Muslim friends in Zahlé, she said. Pointing out the door of her small apartment, she said her next-door neighbor is a Muslim woman, but she doesn’t ever talk to her and has no intention of doing so.
Of course, for every story of Syrian Muslims joining the anti-Christian assault, there are also accounts of Muslims risking their lives to help their Christian neighbors. Christians are also well aware that many Muslims themselves were ISIS targets, and are now living lives every bit as difficult as their own because those Muslims too were forced to flee.
Father Elie Chaaya, a Greek Melkite pastor and academic, said mistrust isn’t universal. In the village where his own parish is located he said, there’s a mixed population among Christians and Sunni Muslims, and he says Christian refugees are able to live together with the Muslims “with no fear.”
Chaar, however, said his experience says the suspicion often runs fairly deep.
“When the Syrian Muslims first started coming here, everyone feared them, Lebanese and refugees alike,” he said. “You want to know, yes or no, is this guy infected with the culture of ISIS? … You can’t help worrying they could be extremists, which makes it hard to trust them.”
Samia says despite the steep hill to climb, rebuilding trust is essential if Christians are going to remain in the Middle East.
“We want Christians to be able to stay here, in the land where Christ was born and where Christianity was born,” she said. “If we’re going to do that, we have to be able to live well with Muslims.
“There just isn’t any other choice,” Samia said.
This reporting is sponsored by Aid to the Church in Need-USA, a pontifical foundation serving persecuted Christians around the world.