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Interview: Earthquake Destroys Churches, Displaces Christian Families in Syria

Interview: Earthquake Destroys Churches, Displaces Christian Families in Syria

The staff and volunteers of GOPA-DERD visited the affected area in the early morning hours after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck northern Syria on February 6, 2023. The staff and volunteers of GOPA-DERD visited the affected area in the early morning hours after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck northern Syria on February 6, 2023. (GOPA-DERD)
ByKaren Luo February 15, 2023
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Editor’s note: A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck across northwest Syria and southern Türkiye on February 6, resulting in the death of more than 40,000 people and leaving many others injured. Syria, which has been ravaged by the war, is now facing a critical situation with fragile infrastructure and inadequate international aid, compounded by the earthquake and hundreds of aftershocks. Churches have been destroyed and many Christian families are displaced. Sara Savva, deputy director-general of the country’s largest Christian humanitarian organization, speaks out about the impact of the earthquake on the people and their actions.

China Christian Daily: Can you first introduce yourself and your organization?

Sara Savva: My name is Sara Savva - I have worked as Deputy Director-General at GOPA-DERD, Syria, for the past six years. The Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development (DERD), is the only official humanitarian arm of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (GOPA) established in 1994. It is currently the largest faith-based and vetted low-risk organization in Syria through INGOs partners. With 44 offices and 43 service centers, GOPA-DERD's total of 1500+ main full-time/part-time staff and out-reach mobile teams, implement a wide range of programs in 13 out of 14 governorates in Syria, that address all the needs of those affected, IDPs and refugee returnees.

After reaching global media visibility and recognition, GOPA-DERD, through its bilateral agreements with 16 UN and international partners, has launched its comprehensive set of programs that have today reached more than 5 million beneficiaries last year. These programs fall under the sectors of Livelihood (Long-term: VT, Grants & Short-term: Cash (MPCA)/Voucher-assistance), FSA/FSL, FI/NFI distribution, Protection, Education, Health, Shelter & WASH.

China Christian Daily: What’s going on in Syria after the earthquake? What happened to the church and Christians there?

Sara Savva: Syria, already a war zone for 11 years, brings despair and deep misery to survivors of the earthquake that struck the country during the break of dawn last Monday. With an infrastructure that is already fragile due to the war, the earthquake and hundreds of aftershocks leave very little chance for survival.

For now, the confirmed numbers are as follows: more than 1414 deaths and 2349 injuries, and 18,500 families accommodated in collective shelters. The search for survivors is still ongoing, for this reason, we still expect these numbers to escalate. Search for survivors continues amidst the harsh winter temperatures that have dropped excessively these past few days, as winter really set in a week ago in Syria.

As for the Church and just like all other institutions, the Church was affected by the earthquake. We have completely and partially destroyed Churches. Unfortunately, the historical Church of Antioch “Where the disciples were first called Christians” was totally wiped out in the city of Antioch. It does not exist anymore. A large population of Christian families is now displaced, after losing their collapsed homes that cannot be rehabilitated anymore.

China Christian Daily: What have you done to help the victims and the affected areas? What about other churches and Christian organizations?  

Sara Savva: GOPA-DERD team has been on the field since the early hours of Monday morning providing emergency response to affected people in Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama governorates, most impacted by the earthquake.

The team is visiting families and individuals affected by the earthquake and who are currently staying in shelters. Besides distributing relief items such as winterization, food items, ready-to-eat meals, and non-food items including heaters and kitchen sets, GOPA-DERD’s team is assessing the needs of the affected persons and responding by providing medical in-kind equipment (oximeters, glucose meters, blood pressure monitors), medicine and transporting physically injured families to nearby hospitals to receive medical attention. GOPA-DERD engineering team is also assessing the situation of the building’s infrastructure in the aforementioned location in preparation for rehabilitation.

All churches are doing their best to support the people, but the need is massive and the funding need remains staggering. GOPA being the largest Church in Syria – and in the region -- including more than 90% of the total number of Christians, is carrying out the largest-scale response, though it has the most limited resources, being a national Church and it is not supported by any other international church from the outside.

China Christian Daily: What kind of help do you expect from other countries?

Sara Savva: Fear grows for survivors – the question they now ask is “what’s next? What kind of future awaits us?” Especially that what has collapsed are not just buildings, these are people’s homes, collapsing onto the ground. These homes are all that was left for many people, after 11 years of war, many families already lost too much, and already fled from one area to another as IDPs in search of a new, safer life. Many families and individuals have worked their whole lives to pay the cost of their small apartments – now vanished into thin air, what used to be their only refuge and safe haven.

From a humanitarian perspective, people in this part of the world have had enough – they count on the world to speak on their behalf for the lifting of the suffocating sanctions that are only affecting the people, and not otherwise affecting those it is meant to affect. (The United States issued a six-month sanctions exemption for humanitarian efforts in Syria on February 10, editor's note.)

Lifting those sanctions means more medicine coming into the country; means more spare parts and equipment being bought to carry out maintenance for the water purification systems, to stop the spread of cholera; means thousands of people getting their jobs back at shut-down factories and providing for their families; means aid can land in Syria via planes from all parts of the world; means Syrians’ can use their passports to travel outside the country where so far, less than 10 countries around the world accept to approve their visas. This is what lifting the sanctions actually means. We have long been sounding alarms about the lack of clean water, food, and medical care.

For this reason, funding is needed on a large scale. Just a few weeks from now, the actual impact will begin to appear. We need to help restore people's livelihoods - hundreds if not thousands of affected people will be starting their lives from scratch. This will be our mission, to make sure it happens. They are counting on us.

China Christian Daily: As many Chinese Christians know little about Christianity in Syria, can you introduce a general picture of the church in Syria to us? How is the church life there? 

Sara Savva: Christians in Syria are as ancient as Christianity itself; also known as ‘Early Christians’. As you may know, the disciples of Jesus were called Christians for the first time in the city of Antioch. At a certain time, during the crusades, the Christians formed 97% of the Syrian population. Later, and due to successive disasters, this number started to decrease till it reached now less than 4% of the whole population. In Syria, we have very unique Christian heritage sites including monasteries and churches that date back to the fourth century A.D. In fact, GOPA resides at the corner of  “straight street” mentioned in the Bible, where Saint Paul once walked.

We have been living in peace in this country and in harmony with our Muslim brothers and sisters. However, as the situation in Syria is getting worse and worse, Christians are leaving the country, especially since foreign countries offer a new life with new opportunities. For this reason, we are expecting the number of Christians to decline, more and more.

China Christian Daily: Do you have any words for the church in China? What can we pray for you?

Sara Savva: Your brothers are in need of your support. Support them to stay in their homeland, and give them the reasons to remain in Syria. Do not send them ships and planes to leave. It is not the kind of support that they desire, not for the past 11 years. Pray for us, as the Christians of Antioch are carrying a heavy cross today, which is a blessing as well.

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