“How long, oh Lord…” The war in Syria enters its eighth year

Once again, we find ourselves at the pinnacle of Lent. Holy Week is upon us. It is a week that evokes deep emotions: grief and desolation followed by profound joy and hope. Amidst the darkness all around, hope persists and breaks through.

Every year we know this is coming. We know for certain that after 40 days, Lent ultimately culminates with Easter and resurrection. There is an empty tomb – He is Risen! – for which we say a resounding Thanks be to God!

But what about the seasons of Lent in our own lives here and now? The times of darkness and confusion? Times of injustice, violence and grief? Times when it seems like there will be no end to human suffering around the world? How can the light even begin to break through in the moments when all hope appears to be gone?

“How long, oh Lord?” cry the Psalmists and the prophets – speaking out of places of deep suffering and isolation, as those who would cry for an end to violence and injustice.

A few weeks ago, I was in Lebanon with two colleagues from MCC’s other advocacy offices, meeting with several of MCC’s partners in the region, including some of MCC’s Syrian partners. We were so privileged to meet with Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus and Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs, both from the Syrian Orthodox Church – a longstanding partner of MCC – who drove in from Syria just to meet with us at their monastery in the mountains.

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Archbishops of the Syrian Orthodox Church came to Lebanon to meet with representatives from MCC’s Advocacy Offices and speak to the current political and humanitarian context within Syria. (left to right, Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Al Nemeh of Homs for the Syrian Orthodox Church; ; Archbishop Matta Al Khoury of Damascus for the Syrian Orthodox Church; and Garry Mayhew, MCC Co-Representative for Lebanon and Syria: MCC photo, Doug Hostetter)

The Syrian war is about to enter its eighth year, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people, forcibly displacing over 13 million people – often multiple times – in a protracted and seemingly unending conflict that has resulted in a humanitarian crisis beyond measure. Bishops Matta and Selwanos and their surrounding communities have lived this crisis from the beginning: offering food and comfort, shelter and little bits of hope where they can.

Eight years. I can’t even begin to imagine. A conflict shifting and moving throughout the country; sectarian violence and regional powers fighting a proxy war on Syrian territory on over a dozen fronts; countless bombings and the physical markings of destruction; trauma and re-traumatization, as no one is untouched; a generation of children knowing no context other than war, destruction and displacement. In this past month alone, devastating attacks overwhelm the people in rebel-controlled East Ghouta, while deadly shells and rockets wreak havoc in government-controlled Damascus.

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Destroyed buildings line a street in an area of Homs, Syria, that was devastated by mortar shelling. (MCC photo/Doug Enns, March 2017)

As the Bishops outlined the crisis and some of the main challenges one phrase really hit home: “There is hope, but it’s very small among Syrian people. How long, oh Lord…?”

Yet the Bishops insisted that the sheer fact that people outside of Syria are noticing, are speaking up, are wanting to stand in solidarity, provides them just a little more hope. Our visit with them inspired us and stirred within us new energy to speak and to act.

As we as MCC advocacy workers come home and share these stories and messages with our friends, churches and communities, we want to lament and pray and stand in solidarity with our partners. In this Lenten time and period of waiting and uncertainty let us all cry out for justice and peace to come.

As advocates we invite our supporters to speak truth to power and raise these voices up in the halls of power. Our group asked the Bishops what message they wanted us to bring to our respective governments. They replied, simply “peace comes first.” Priority must be given to negotiating diplomatic peace as soon as possible, without the continuing support to military efforts, beginning the long process of sustainable peacebuilding, justice, healing and reconciliation.

In such a protracted conflict, the Bishops outlined, every party carries its own economic and political interests and objectives, but above all they must be urged to seek the welfare and human dignity of the people. Sectarian, political, religious and national divides have brought about acts of horror on all sides, and are often manipulated and have been exacerbated by armed actors and by intervening countries, such as Iran, Russia, the U.S. and Canada. The act of supporting a military solution, both in words and in actions – which Canada and the U.S. are intent on – will only fuel these divisions and carry them into the future.

Long-lasting peace, instead, comes with addressing the root causes of violence; promoting genuine immediate and long-lasting dialogue between religions, national, political and sectarian groups; supporting the urgent humanitarian and development needs. Inclusive and immediate diplomacy is paramount.

There is by no means an easy or quick-fix solution. MCC’s partners in Syria and the region have long been responding to humanitarian and development urgent needs. MCC’s response to the crisis Syria and the region is our biggest humanitarian response since World War II. Partners are also highly engaged in peacebuilding, bringing together people from different communities, sects and religions, seeking to build peace from the ground up.

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Flowers bloom amid the destruction in Homs, Syria, a site where MCC partners with the Syrian Orthodox Church in supporting orphans and providing monthly allowances. MCC photo/Doug Enns, 2017

As this year’s Lenten season draws to a close, I pray we all can be renewed again with the hope of Easter. And may that hope somehow spread out into what often seems like never-ending darkness, and may this hope of resurrection give us all strength to continue to cry out for justice and peace. “How long, oh Lord…”

Bekah Sears is the policy analyst for MCC’s Ottawa Office

Let the little children come . . .

But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” – Mark 10:14

I read this familiar scripture text while travelling in Palestine a few weeks ago, specifically, the day we visited a Bethlehem refugee camp and learned about the life of children there. I read the text again a week later; it was posted on the wall of a Christian organization that provides rehabilitation services to children and youth who have been injured, detained or traumatized by political violence.

I have travelled to Palestine four times in the last dozen years.  This visit, more than others, I was touched with the devastating impact of military occupation on children.  Over and over I heard and witnessed how Palestinian children and youth are assaulted physically, emotionally and psychologically as they endure occupation. Israeli children suffer too.

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Boys play soccer next to the separation wall.  Photo Ryan Dueck

Palestine has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. Over the past 50 years, that occupation has become entrenched by a high separation wall, hundreds of checkpoints, severe restrictions on movement, and the growth of Jewish-only settlements in Palestinian territory. An end to the occupation is nowhere in sight, and another generation of Palestinian children is growing up without the hope of freedom.

At the Bethlehem refugee camp, in existence since 1948 when the creation of the state of Israel created 750,000 Palestinian refugees, a father tells us how his 5-year-old daughter expresses the wish her mother give birth to another girl rather than a boy – because a boy is so much more likely to be detained, injured or even killed. When a baby boy arrives, the daughter tells her parents her new brother should sleep in an inside room, away from the window, where he will be protected from the teargas and the bullets that are common occurrences.

As we walk through the refugee camp, our guide points to a wall listing some of the names of the 551 Palestinian children killed during Israel’s war on Gaza in July 2014.  It doesn’t list the 3,346 injured and the 10 percent permanently disabled. Life is very cheap for Gazan children, it seems. During my two-week stay in Palestine and Israel, two more Gaza children are killed by an Israeli missile attack, a brother and sister, 10 and 6 years of age.

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Schoolgirls in East Jerusalem walk along the separation wall. Esther Epp-Tiessen

A group of human rights lawyers tells us about children and youth in military detention. Defense for Children International, an NGO monitoring children’s rights around the world, has documented the arrest of 8,000 children since 2000.  Most of them have been detained for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. They are usually arrested by heavily-armed men during night-time raids, blindfolded and bound, taken to an unknown location without accompaniment and then interrogated at length.  While most youth detained are between 10 and 20, some are as young as eight years of age.

The lawyers tell us that the night raids are so terrifying, many mothers stay awake most of the night so that if soldiers arrive to conduct a raid, the mothers can waken their children quietly rather than have them woken by the door being smashed open by soldiers. (Not surprisingly, many mothers in Palestine suffer high levels of anxiety, headaches and hypertension.)

Children who are released from detention are severely traumatized. They sleep poorly, have recurring nightmares and often wet themselves. They typically withdraw from others, refuse to return to school or play with friends. Children who have been detained are 13 times more likely to drop out of school than others. Without rehabilitative help, young people who have been traumatized are much more likely to engage in violence and destructive behaviour themselves.

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Palestinian boys play with a kite while soldiers observe. Photo Ryan Dueck

As the occupation drags on, the hopes and dreams of young people fade and disappear.  Many youth cannot even imagine living freely in the land that is their home.  Another father, a longtime advocate for a free and independent Palestine, observes his daughter’s despair.  “Give up, Dad,” she says. “The Israelis have won; there will be no free Palestine.”  I wonder if despair is what drives Palestinian youth to attack Israelis on the streets of Jerusalem. Their actions are not defensible but they are understandable.

The occupation not only victimizes Palestinian children; it also harms Jewish Israeli children and youth.  At a new Jewish settlement In East Jerusalem (by international consensus, Palestinian land), I witness children playing behind a massive iron bar fence with separates them from soccer-playing Palestinian kids nearby. The Jewish children are guarded by a dozen or so machine-gun toting soldiers.  In a few years they will be soldiers themselves, as mandatory military service demands that they become part of the machinery that upholds the occupation.  I mourn that Jewish children and youth grow up with the sense that they are surrounded by danger, and that the only response is military might.

It is deeply and profoundly wrong that generations of Palestinian children have grown up essentially imprisoned in their own land.  It is deeply and profoundly wrong that Jewish Israeli children grow up learning that the security of their people requires the oppression of another.  It is unconscionable that much of the world continues to turn a blind eye.

“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

By Esther Epp-Tiessen, Public Engagement Coordinator of the Ottawa Office.