Syrian Christians Brave the Turkish Attack to Stay Behind and Help

Image: Open Doors USA

Though most of the fighting has stopped for now, Turkey’s incursion on Kurdish-controlled northern Syria has left another humanitarian crisis in its wake.

Local churches as well as Christian organizations like Open Doors and Preemptive Love Coalition have prioritized caring for the citizens who took the risk to stay behind and helping the displaced return.

Last Saturday night, after three days of Turkish bombing, the Alliance Church of Qamishli met to make a decision. Would they flee for safety, or remain and help?

To some degree they had no choice.

Fadi Habsouna, a father of two, was injured when missiles hit his home and ruined his shop. His wife is in critical condition. His grandfather’s home was destroyed by a bomb. The pastor housed them in church-owned property, and decided to remain to assist the family, and others suffering similarly.

The church agreed; only eight families would leave.

“These are extremely brave people who want to be salt and light in their communities,” said David Curry, CEO of Open Doors USA, who relayed this story from his field staff. “They want to maintain the presence of Jesus and reach out.”

Open Doors is better known for its advocacy work on behalf of the persecuted; Syria ranks no. 11 on its World Watch List of places hardest to be a Christian. Its local partners keep a low profile in order to provide on the ground assessment. But the crisis in Syria has driven them to humanitarian aid.

It is not the first time. Following the rise of ISIS in 2014, Open Doors helped 150,000 Christians located in camps along the Turkish and Lebanese borders. Now their community hubs are providing food, medical care, hygiene kits, and temporary shelter in the northeast Syrian towns affected by the Turkish incursion.

“Christians have to make hard choices,” Curry said. “Leave the communities they were raised in, move inland, or stay and hope they are not killed.”

Displacement and US-Turkey Deal

Jacques Behnan Hindo, Catholic Archbishop of Hasakeh, said half of his diocese, totaling 5,000 families, have fled the area. He reports similar numbers in nearby Qamishli.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 146 civilians have died so far. Over 160,000 have fled, including 70,000 children. The Kurdish-led local authority counted the total displaced at over 275,000. Of the 3 million people who lived in the northeast, 1.25 million were already receiving UN aid. Now the number in need has risen to 1.8 million, including 900,000 in acute need.

And worse, the Turkish military operation began during the winter planting season, and the region—Syria’s breadbasket—provides 90 percent of the nation’s cereal production.

The situation may get worse before it gets better, especially as most NGOs were forced by the violence to leave the area entirely. It is not yet clear how the deal struck between the US and Turkey will affect operations.

Under terms announced in a joint statement announced Thursday, Turkey will pause their offensive for five days, allowing Kurdish troops to withdraw. Turkey will then take control of a 20-mile deep safe zone running 280 miles along much of the border with Syria.

The UN expressed its cautious support, thankful for de-escalation, but admitting there is still a long way to go.

“We just cannot effectively operate with the heavy shelling, roads closing, and the various and constantly changing armed actors in the areas where we are working,” said Made Ferguson, deputy country director for Mercy Corps, which had been operating in the area since 2014.

Other major agencies, like Médecins Sans Frontières, have also had to relocate. The UN remains, but the World Health Organization has reported that two national hospitals, three field hospitals, and several health centers are either out of commission or offering limited services.

But some organizations are sticking it out.

“We’ve been able to continue, because we work with and through locals who know the area, know the needs, and know the security situation extremely well,” said Jeremy Courtney, founder of Preemptive Love, which has been active in Syria since 2016. “That said, this is very much a high-risk environment.”

And Courtney doesn’t expect the deal will make it any better—but rather worse.

“It is likely that families will continue to be displaced from the border zone as Turkish forces move in,” according to their official statement. “Those already displaced may have no home left to go back to, as a direct result of this deal.”

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Source: Christianity Today