Catholic News Service photo
Syrian refugees walk through the Za'atri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq.
Catholic News Service photo
Syrian refugees walk through the Za'atri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq.

Fighting in Syria is not just another Arab uprising, says a Catholic Relief Services official posted in the Middle East.

"Syria is very complicated," says Mark Schnellbaecher, based in Beirut. Schnellbaecher, who oversees CRS operations in the region, visited Oregon last month.   

For one thing, the struggle in Syria has even more sectarian overtones than civil strife in Egypt, Tunisia or Bahrain. There are Sunni, Shia, Druze, Kurds and Christians. If the religious tension becomes the "major hue" of the fighting, the bloodshed could be worse than in Iraq, Schnellbaecher predicts.

Whereas the other Arab revolutions stayed mostly in-country, the Syria struggle is a regional war. Turkey, trying to assert itself in the Middle East, is getting more involved in opposing the Syrian regime. Turkey fears that Kurds may establish a kind of homeland in Syria.

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a partner of Iran, which relies on Syria as a route for supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, which in turns agitates Israel. On top of it all, Syria represents Russia's last stake on the Middle East. In a sense, Schnellbaecher says, the Syria strife is a proxy war.   

The conflict, with a regime willing to torture its citizens, is increasingly vicious. Regular people suffer and refugees are still fleeing Syria in large numbers. There are 300,000 refugees, but Schnellbaecher's real concern is for the estimated 2 million trapped in Syria where aid groups like CRS cannot get to them. Some those suffering in Damascus, for example, were Iraqis who fled from their country to Syria in decades past.

"There is no legal protections for these people," Schnellbaecher says. "These are very vulnerable populations, many of them women and kids."

Catholic organizations are helping refugees who did escape. Caritas Jordan is a major aid group, even though only 1 percent of Jordanians are Catholic. Caritas Lebanon also helps, offering necessities for life as well as counseling for war trauma.

One Syrian grandmother in her sixties, never expected to find herself in the situation.

“How can it be that my husband was killed and my son was kidnapped?" she told CRS workers. "The heart of a mother is very sensitive. When her son gets sick, a mother can't sleep in the night. My son is missing, and I can't sleep in the night. We had no idea we would be leaving Syria this way."

To operate in the Middle East, Catholic aid organizations must work closely with Muslim groups. It works well, Schnellbaecher reports. Much charitable work is organized around mosques and Muslim endowment funds. Followers of Islam respect people who are doing good for religious reasons. Charity is one of the five pillars of the faith.

"Catholic Relief Services can be seen two ways — as Catholic or as American. In the Middle East, it's easier to reference the Catholic face than the American face, says Schnellbaecher, who sees major resentment in the region over the Iraq war and what is perceived as lopsided support for Israel.

Schnellbaecher is encouraging Catholics to speak up for the dignity of people in need around the world, including Christians in the Holy Land. CRS and the U.S. Catholic bishops have established an advocacy network called Catholics Confront Global Poverty.

The network's website — — is now asking Catholics to let Secretary of State Hilary Clinton know that they are concerned about the refugees from the civil war in Syria.