Local Syrians find support at St. Maron

| September 25, 2013 | 0 Comments
A parishioner lights candles that spell out the word Peace in English and Arabic in preparation for a candlelight vigil for peace in Syria at St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in Minneapolis Sept. 7. Pope Francis called for that day to be one of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. Photo courtesy of Msgr. Sharbel Maroun

A parishioner lights candles that spell out the word Peace in English and Arabic in preparation for a candlelight vigil for peace in Syria at St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in Minneapolis Sept. 7. Pope Francis called for that day to be one of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world. Photo courtesy of Msgr. Sharbel Maroun

Fadel Sakkal worries every day about his family in Syria.

Civil war has gripped the country since early 2011, but in recent months the situation in his hometown of Aleppo in the northern part of the country has deteriorated.

“For the last year it has been under siege, and definitely for the last three or four months,” he said. “No one can get in or out, except from Turkey, and they have to be a supporter of the other side, the revolution.”

Sakkal came to the U.S. with his parents — who now have dual citizenship — in 1982.

The Fridley pediatrician gets emotional when talking about his family there. His parents, who were living in the U.S., returned to Syria not long ago when his brother passed away, leaving behind a wife and three children. The parents went there to help and are not able to return.

Sakkal is part of a small population — 10 to 20 households — of Syrians that are members of St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in Minneapolis, an Eastern-rite church established in the late 1800s when many Lebanese Maronites immigrated to the area.

“This increases the level of anxiety in people’s lives,” said Msgr. Sharbel Maroun, pastor of St. Maron. “They hear that cities are being bombed, churches [are] being destroyed, they hear that war is going on their own neighborhoods and places that they know. Then, they see tragedies happen where whole cities are destroyed and Christians are displaced.”

According to the UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, the overall number of Syrian refugees passed the 2 million mark in early September.

Lebanon, where Msgr. Maroun and many of his parishioners at St. Maron are from, has a population of about 3.5 million, and has taken in more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the most of any country in the region. Before the crisis began in Syria, which borders Lebanon, there were already more than 50,000 Iraqi refugees living in Lebanon.

Raising awareness

St. Maron recently held a candlelight vigil for peace in Syria, and also joined with Holy Family Maronite Catholic Church in Mendota Heights and St. George Greek Orthodox Church in St. Paul to hold a bake sale to raise funds for displaced people. But, there’s not much more people here can do.

Some family members of Syrian parishioners have come to Minneapolis to escape the violence, but most are only “visiting” and can’t stay in the U.S., Msgr. Maroun said. “They are lucky they have some family members here; the majority don’t have anybody.”

Sakkal said there are things about the Syrian government that Christians don’t like — the fact that it is a dictatorship and doesn’t treat people with fairness and dignity — but Christians don’t want to take part in the civil war. What started as a revolution asking for human rights and economic reform has become a war between differing extreme Muslim groups, he said.

The Christians don’t like what the government is doing, but they are also afraid that an Islamic government might oppress Christians.

“Christians who are innocent, and who are not part of this side or that side, they end up being the victims that are caught in the middle of the fight,” Msgr. Maroun said.

He is afraid that if things continue, Christians will flee and there will be no more Christians in the Middle East.

“Wherever there is violence and there is disturbance and there is hatred, they move away,” he said.

Dialogue needed

What will solve the problem, Msgr. Maroun says, is communication. The two sides need to come together and say, ‘What can we do to save our country, save our people and live again?’”

“It’s very important that we save the Christian minorities [in the Middle East],” he said. “You need to forgive and you need to love and that comes through Christianity. That’s why the Christian presence is so important there, in Syria and in Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East.”

Sakkal worries about the future of his home country, but his family is first on his mind.

“I can’t get them much help, I can’t send them money, there’s no way,” Sakkal said. “So I am worried sick about them. Nobody can help them. It’s hard.”

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