BEIRUT, Lebanon — Ibrahim Nseir, a Presbyterian pastor, was chatting at a Beirut hotel in late November with others attending a gathering of Protestant leaders from the Middle East and beyond when a call came in from his wife in Aleppo, Syria.
She had just heard that one of the families in their congregation had a rocket land in front of their house at midnight. It blew out the windows, splattering the sleeping family with shards of glass.
The family was all right, but the expression on Nseir’s face made clear it was the kind of story he had heard too many times. His church was shelled twice and rebuilt. He saw the bodies of 10 children killed by a missile. He was visiting patients when a hospital was bombed. A family of five was killed in front of his church.
“My children haven’t slept in a week,” he said of the fierce bombardment the city experienced recently. “It is the most difficult situation when you see your child just screaming and all you can do is hold him and say, don’t worry, I’m here — but you know you can do nothing.”
A father of three, Nseir, 46, said about 65 percent of his congregation has left the country, in part because young men want to avoid being conscripted into the fight. Of those who remain, half are working on leaving and the other half are too poor to contemplate emigrating.
He estimated that of 150,000 Christians in Aleppo before the war, fewer than 20,000 remain.
The future of an ancient Christian community in Syria is increasingly in doubt, as those who have hung on struggle to cope with a shattered economy. Costs have grown for food, medication and fuel to run generators. The city hasn’t had electricity in three years.
$50 makes a difference
To help Aleppo churches minister to the most vulnerable Christians and Muslims in their communities during five years of war, Mennonite Central Committee has been providing humanitarian aid to the Syriac Orthodox Church, Middle East Council of Churches and the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches.
These groups provide monthly cash allowances to 225 vulnerable families in Aleppo for 12 months. Even $50 cash allowances help make it possible for families to stay if they wish.
The Syriac Orthodox Church improves access to clean water to 2,000 families for six months.
The Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue provides monthly food baskets to 400 families who fled eastern Aleppo to the western side of the city in mid-December to escape violence.
Every little bit helps in a city struggling with war’s effects. Rooftop water tanks have been destroyed by shooting, making even basic hygiene a concern. Nseir worries about how to help young people afford tuition so they can stay in Syria but avoid being forced to enter the military.
In other areas of Syria, MCC continues to work with local partner organizations to provide food assistance, monthly cash allowances, winterization support (heaters, heating fuel, blankets), access to clean water, hygiene supplies, peacebuilding initiatives and educational support to vulnerable people.
Another Presbyterian pastor, Rev. Firas, 39, works in three parishes in the northeastern corner of Syria where Kurdish forces hold sway. He said cash allowances have helped people like Nadib, a teacher and father of three who lost his job when the Kurds took over the schools. (The men’s last names are not used for security reasons.)
“He always says to me, ‘Thank God for this. When you see these people [who provide MCC cash allowances], say thank you to them, because in our bad situation they think about us and give us something out of love,’ ” Firas said.
He estimated 40 percent of his congregation has left Syria.
Nseir admits he is under pressure from family, some of whom are in the U.S., to leave as well.
“Through my ministry in the last three years, I have worked very hard to be a sign of hope in the city,” he said. “So many Christians, if they hear that I will leave, they will think the situation is not secure any more, and they will leave too.”