Christians May Vanish from Syria Forever – In-depth Interview with Father Hanna Ghoneim
Syrian Father Hanna Ghoneim currently lives in Vienna, Austria. He is deeply involved in projects that endeavour to rebuild Syria, his homeland. According to Fr Hanna, people in the West do not really know what happened in Syria during the war and the living hell Syrians had to endure. He wants to educate the European public about what actually occurred on his native soil. In this interview, he discusses why so many Syrians left their country and talks about initiatives to bring them back home.
Could you tell us how the people of Syria survived a period of history full of hardships: a civil war that started in 2011, persecution and terror which after the fall of the so-called Islamic State has now come to an end – or at least that’s how it seems.
This is indeed a good question. I think, without a strong belief in God, many Christians would not have been able to endure the hardships imposed on the Syrian people. The cruel and unjust war raging on Syrian territory has been constantly fuelled and refuelled by geopolitical interests of several “big players.” A war that shouldn’t be called “civil war,” as it has been ignited and waged by foreign interests, taking the Syrian people as hostages. The challenge is getting ever more difficult and people need urgent help to be able to remain in their home country.
It was never easy being a Christian in the Middle East. In your opinion, has the world recognised the pain and persecution of Christians in countries affected by this horrible phenomenon?
Most mainstream media pay little attention to the situation of Christians in the Middle East, at least I do not know that they are constantly listening. Here in Europe, the media coverage about the Christians in Syria is superficial and does not correspond to reality. Christian brothers and sisters around the world should be informed much more often. Therefore, I am very grateful for the opportunity of this interview.
As for the situation in Syria, people around the world should be made aware that Christian communities in Syria are close to extinction and are seriously threatened with dissolution if survival aid and reconstruction aid are not forthcoming.
How can the creation of a bakery in the neighbourhood of Damascus provide the necessary amount of daily bread for hundreds of thousands of people?
Building a bakery managed by Christian hands will set a shining example of sharing and of feeding Christians and non-Christians alike, including the very poorest. The planned bakery is to provide bread for the people in Maaruneh and the surrounding villages (about 50,000 persons). It is intended as an aid for people to help themselves. With the proceeds, further investments will be possible and will create desperately needed jobs and income.
Where did the idea to build a bakery that would supply so many people in great need come from?
When I visited my home village Maaruneh, a Christian village near Damascus, four years ago, there was no bakery. People had to go to the neighbouring villages to buy bread. The bread was of poor quality because of corruption. Some of the good flour provided by the state was sold on the black market and old flour was added for producing the bread. In order to buy good quality bread, people had to take a dangerous trip to Damascus which cost money and time. The trip of 18 km took sometimes up to four hours in one direction. This gave rise to my idea to build a Christian bakery in Maaruneh. The state contributes flour at a very low price (0.05€ per kg of flour) and the church contributes the property. The idea was taken up with great enthusiasm by the people and by the church, but they need help to build the bakery and to buy equipment. Once we have set up the bakery, it will be possible to produce 10 kg of high quality bread for the price of €1!
Bread is the only thing that keeps people in Syria alive. Providing daily bread is an important symbol of Christianity and of showing how Jesus would act in such a war situation. We recall the command of Jesus “You give them something to eat!” (Mt 14:16) when thousands were fed with five loavess of bread and still, some full baskets were left over. This is the miracle of sharing bread. The bread will be sold at a very low price and will be given free of charge to those who have no money at all, regardless of religious or political affiliation.
How can the international community assist in order to boost the support for the people of Syria?
As a first step, the international community should end the economic sanctions against Syria as quickly as possible. This embargo is affecting above all the Syrian people who are victims of the war and it causes corruption and supports black market profiteers.
As a second step, the international community should provide survival help to enable people to remain in the country. Reserves, even of formerly wealthier families, are largely used up and people cannot survive without jobs and income. More than half of the population in Syria is currently living below the poverty limit.
As a third step, international help should be regarded as investments, – rebuilding a functioning infrastructure with hospitals, kindergartens, schools and universities, building factories, reactivating farmland, etc.
This will encourage Syrian refugees abroad and domestically displaced Syrians to return home. People don’t want to remain forever dependent on humanitarian help. They want to work and to contribute towards bringing their country back to normality.
How was this charity born? No other initiative of its type exists that we are aware of.
My parish “Harasta” that is 8 km outside of Damascus was conquered by rebels in October of 2012. All 130 families had to flee. At that time, I was in Vienna and started to collect donations for my parish. I was surprised about the generosity of the people in Austria and Germany and I started to offer help to other villages and later also to other cities such as Homs and Aleppo.
There are many aid organisations which are engaged in Syria, but they reach only a small part of the population. Many of the people whom I know haven’t received anything so far. Our foundation wants to help these people in need who don’t get any help from elsewhere and we try to give them exactly what they need.
The foundation “Korbgemeinschaft – Hilfe für Syrien” dedicated to help in Syria was created in 2016, to formalize various activities that had started earlier (for example collecting humanitarian goods and shipping them to Syria in containers). Our foundation acts as mediator between Christian communities in Syria and charity organisations in Austria and in other countries which support the various initiatives.
I travel to Syria several times every year to see with my own eyes what is needed most and where the need is greatest.
Hungary is doing its best to help in the Middle East and Africa by providing shelter for persecuted Christians. What would be “best practice” so as to achieve these objectives and establish peace in the region?
We are very grateful for Hungary’s help and engagement. The best practice is always the one that offers help directly there where it is most needed. Our foundation works exclusively with helpers on a voluntary, free-of-charge basis. All donations are reaching the poor in a 1:1 ratio. The priests in the parishes in Syria are our contact persons. They know best where poverty is fiercest. We have to support all the priests in the pastoral and social work, because they are the ones who can judge with their own eyes. Peace will be reached easiest, when people have a sustainable income and when life gets back to normality.
I personally find that the Hungarian policy of helping people in their own home country is a “best practice” example. People are not forced to emigrate to other countries.
Apart from expressing solidarity, how can other countries help to ease the current situation?
Expressing solidarity is important, but it needs to be matched by concrete support. At the moment, it is vital to rebuild infrastructure and to ensure that the young and the qualified people who have endured the horrors of the past seven years can survive and can rebuild the country. Sustainable jobs and income are needed to avoid that even more people leave the country for lack of opportunities. Once Christian houses and properties are sold, they will be lost forever.
As far as you are concerned, how is the government of Syria helping the minority Christian community in Syria?
In Syria, we don’t use the term “minority”. All people belong to the Syrian population. The Syrian government does not consider the Christians as a separate group but as an essential part of the Syrian society. The government is aware that the Christians pay a valuable contribution to the country’s education, health system and economy. Therefore the Syrian government has a very positive attitude towards the Christian communities and expects a lot from them for re-establishing peace and for rebuilding the country. The government does not pose any obstacles to Christian projects. Rather on the contrary, Christian projects are usually supported by granting the necessary permits. This is the case for the planned bakery and also for the container shipments with humanitarian goods that we send to Syria.
How could we inspire more charity projects just like the ‘Bread for Syria’ and thus encourage Christian emigrants to return home?
The bakery project is just one of many examples. Other important projects are related to renovating kindergartens, schools, parish and youth centres. We have to pay more attention to the children and youth. Young people need good education and jobs. We have to support them to finance their studies and to create jobs for them. We therefore have to build up small and medium-sized industries, agricultural projects (for example irrigation of olive tree plantations during the dry periods to rescue the harvest, cultivating farmland that has been fallow during the years of war). As soon as there will be jobs and income, emigrants will consider returning to their home country. Keeping the Christian communities alive is important in order to create a warm welcome atmosphere for returnees.
From your point of view, will the persecution of Christians cease or at least lessen in the foreseeable future?
In Syria, Christians are not persecuted by the current government, but they are threatened in northern Syria, which is under the control of US supported Kurds. At the beginning of this school year, the Kurds decided to close the Christian schools who did not agree to undergo teacher licensing by the Kurdish Democratic Union (a branch of PKK). All the Christian schools joined in the protest in order to be allowed to remain under Syrian government control. Christians in regions under government control are not persecuted but they suffer from the hardships caused to a large extent by the trade embargo. It is the poverty that threatens the Christians.
If Christian parishes disappear and if the Christian communities are getting ever smaller, there will certainly be pressure from the surrounding Muslim-dominated society, let alone if the current government is replaced by a new one with fundamentalist Muslim attitudes. It will be important for journalists to see and to communicate the facts and the risks. Too many mainstream media have, for way too long, naively propagated poorly researched stories that have been planted by powerful players who are, genuinely speaking, unscrupulous “war profiteers.” The misery and poverty of people can be turned into big business by the cynical greed of those who have a total lack of human feelings.
Western journalists should communicate that Syria can be rebuild, that Syrian refugees are needed in their home country, and that supporting projects right in Syria is a much wiser, more far-sighted, more cost-efficient and more humane way of helping than protracting a “refugee” status of deeply uprooted and homeless individuals.