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Melkite archbishop in Lebanon leads outreach to Syrian refugees
Catholic News Service

Melkite Archbishop Issam Darwich of Zahleh and Furzol, Lebanon, knows what it's like to be a stranger in strange land.

As head of the Melkite archdiocese headquartered in Zahleh, one of the largest predominately Christian towns in Lebanon, the Syrian-born cleric has refocused much of his ministry on providing encouragement, food and other aid to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing their country's two-and-a-half-year-old civil war.

Zahleh, 34 miles east of Beirut, also is just 25 miles west of Damascus, the Syrian capital. Zahleh is one of the first stops for Syrian refugees arriving in Lebanon.

"That's why I said if we have problems in Damascus, 1 million can walk straight away from Damascus close to Zahleh," said the archbishop, who has lived most of his life in Lebanon, arriving at the age of 9.

"In my archdiocese, we started to welcome the Syrian refugees, especially Christians since the beginning of the war," Archbishop Darwich said during a break at an Arab-Christian leaders conference.

At first it was 50 displaced Syrian families, totaling about 250 people. After 30 months, the Syrian refugee presence has grown to 800 families, some 4,000 people.

Archbishop Darwich said looking after the refugees' health problems poses financial and emotional challenges for the Lebanese caretakers.

For that reason, his archdiocese is working with Caritas Lebanon, the church's international relief agency, as well as with other Christian denominations and Muslim charities.

"We open our doors to those who want to help the Syrian refugees. We created an office in our archdiocese and volunteers visit the refugees at home to see their needs," he said.

The archdiocese also opened a chaplaincy service to deal with a host of issues the Syrian refugees face.

"Some priests and deacons help them because many of them left their country with nothing. They are traumatized," he said, particularly of those who have lost relatives and other devastating effects of the grinding conflict.

"I myself go to have a meal with them. We share together with the families."

Lebanon is sheltering the bulk of the Syrians refugees, taking in more than half of the 2 million people displaced outside of the country. Lebanon is reeling under the weight of the extra numbers.

Although some Syrians register with the United Nations refugee agency for assistance, no camps have opened under U.N. auspices unlike in Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. That leaves the Syrians in Lebanon greatly dependent on the generosity of others, Archbishop Darwich said.

"They are experiencing many psychological problems because they are not accepted by all the Lebanese population. They can't find jobs. I don't know if they can continue like that without jobs or any financial resources," he explained.

"That is their major problem. That's why they always tell me they want to return to their country. They are waiting for peace," he added.

Many displaced Syrian Christian refugees do not register with the U.N. or other international organizations, fearful of imagined or real recrimination that could be taken against relatives who remain in Syria by either the regime of President Bashar Assad or rebel forces.

Some aid workers also believe that Syria's Christians, like some of the country's other minority communities, also fear that U.N. registration might bring retribution from other refugees or one of the many ethnic and religious groups within Lebanon. But the U.N. refugee agency is working with various communities and religious charities to encourage them to come forward.

Archbishop Darwich said that because of Lebanon's past precarious relations with its much larger and politically more powerful neighbor, some people in his archdiocese are unhappy about helping the refugees because their political leaders have aligned against Assad.

"They think when Syrians were in Lebanon, they had a problem with them," the archbishop said of the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon that began in 1976 and lasted until 2005. At times under the occupation, the Syrian army shelled Zahleh.

"I tell them always, we Christians must forgive. We must forget also," he said.

The ongoing conflict in Syria has directly affected Lebanon's own stability. The Lebanese government has broken down as a result and parliamentary elections that had been planned for June were postponed.

The Catholic leader described how the Lebanese economy was also suffering as a result of Syria's dire situation. He noted that many tourists had canceled trips to Lebanon because of the unrest.

Despite the ramifications, Archbishop Darwich has repeatedly reminded his flock to look beyond the current circumstances.

"There is a humanitarian problem now. We must look after them. We hope they will go back to their country soon, but they are now in Lebanon. We must pray for them, look after them, forget everything," he said.

Archbishop Darwich also expressed concerns about the future of Christians in Syria, saying if they are not protected, this will also directly impact Christians in neighboring Lebanon. Yet, he expressed strong faith in Christ who is able to protect the Church.

"I'm always optimistic that God will reign on this country. Prayer Is powerful," he said. "That is why I always call on my people to pray and to pray continuously."

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