In Syria, Food is ‘The Most Deadly Weapon of War’

By John Pontifex

Emergency food distribution near Homs, Syria; ACN photo

Emergency food distribution near Homs, Syria; ACN photo

NEW YORK—Food has become “the most deadly weapon of war” in Syria, according to a leading Catholic charity’s Middle East expert, who charged that both government and rebel forces are blocking humanitarian aid to force entire communities—already on the brink of starvation—to submit to their rule. He added that rebels have confiscated humanitarian aid, selling it to the highest bidder to generate funds.

Father Andrzej Halemba, Middle East project coordinator for international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, said that many groups are preventing food aid from getting through in an attempt to weaken the resistance of opposition groups.

The priest, who is in constant communication with Church leaders in Syria and who visited the country three times last year, said the crisis was putting extra pressure on aid organizations to increase emergency help to accessible areas.

Referring to the town north-east of Damascus where residents are reportedly starving to death, Father Halemba said: “There are quite a few places like Madaya where people are in desperate need but where help is not getting through.”

Amid reports that up to 4 million people in Syria are living in areas cut off from aid, the veteran priest cited statistics showing that, since the violence began nearly five years ago, 280,000 people had been killed in conflict—and that as many as 350,000 had died from lack of medicine and other essential supplies.

The charity is working with bishops in Damascus, Tartus, Aleppo and Homs as well as Jesuits and religious communities providing food, medicine, clothing and shoes in regions such as Aleppo, north-east Syria, as well as Homs, further south, and areas surrounding Marmarita and the Valley of the Christians.

He stressed how the crisis was compounded by a loss of power supplies in key areas. For example, Aleppo has been without a regular supply of electricity since mid-November, a problem made worse by freezing temperatures at night.

He spoke of the urgent need to provide aid to villages near the north-eastern city of Hassake, newly liberated from Islamist forces. At present, many internally displaced Assyrian Christians are unable to return to their villages because of the lack of basic supplies.

Father Halemba urged renewed prayers for Syria, especially for 79 Christians kidnapped form the Assyrian villages near Hassake and held by ISIS at its stronghold of Raqqa in the north of the country. Reports say the Islamists have requested ransoms of up to $35,000 per person.

The priest also highlighted the plight of Christians unable to pay the so-called Islamic jizya tax demanded in areas controlled by ISIS and other militant groups. He said that Christians were forced to pay jizya of up to $400 per year—an exorbitant sum for most ordinary Christians.

Directly under the Holy Father, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity - helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action. Founded in 1947 by Father Werenfried van Straaten, whom Pope John Paul II named “An Outstanding Apostle of Charity,” the organization is now at work in over 145 countries throughout the world. The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, 43 million Aid to the Church in Need Child’s Bibles have been distributed worldwide. For more information contact Michael Varenne at michael@churchinneed.org or call 718-609-0939 or fax718-609-0938. Aid to the Church in Need, 725 Leonard Street, PO Box 220384, Brooklyn, NY 11222-0384. www.churchinneed.org