Voice from Damascus: the plight of Syria’s Christians – Interview with Majd Lahham

Damascus is a modern, bustling, secular city

Damascus, Syria

Majd Lahham, a resident of Damascus, agreed to a long distance interview with Levant Report this week. He is a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church headquartered in Damascus and spent years as head of the program for Iraqi refugees in the Office of Ecumenical Relations for the Patriarchate of Antioch, and as local coordinator for International Orthodox Christian Charities.

As the conflict in Syria spread in 2011, he increasingly became involved in relief work for internally displaced Syrian refugees. In the Fall of 2012, Majd toured multiple cities throughout United States as part of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. He attempted to raise awareness among Americans of the plight of Syria’s two million strong Christian community, and shared his experiences of working with Iraqis and displaced Syrians. Sadly, the plight of Syria’s Christians is an issue that is still largely ignored in mainstream press, and by most Americans.

Majd currently teaches at a private college in the Damascus area. His views should not be taken to express the official opinion of the Orthodox Church of Antioch. He speaks as private Syrian citizen.

Full interview transcript: 

LR (Levant Report): Thank you for your willingness to do this interview during a busy time. We understand that you maintain a full teaching schedule at a private college in the Damascus area – this is refreshing to hear about as it is a sign of normalcy and stability in the city. What is daily life like in Damascus right now?

M. Lahham: It is a very difficult life. Lots of necessary items are not available. Prices have sharply increased. What were once essential food items for families are now considered luxuries. For example, the price of one egg before the crisis was 5 Syrian pounds and now it is 30 Syrian pounds (in the U.S. this would be like a simple carton of eggs suddenly costing close to $15). If you want to go to your work, you have to cross at least three checkpoints. You will never know if you will come back home or you will be killed by a mortar or by a suicide bombing. Usually we lose electricity for 6 hours a day. However, if a terrorist bombs a fuel line, we lose the electricity for almost one day until the lines get repaired by the government. It is dangerous to travel outside the city of Damascus. Sanctions by the United States and Europe have made daily life even worse. Ten thousands of people are now starving. They eat only bread and some vegetables. Some people who are now under siege by rebel groups are out of food and they are boiling available spices like cinnamon to maintain even a little energy.

LR: Western media gave little attention to the rebel shelling of the Christian school in Qassaa on November 12, which killed multiple children and wounded many more. Have the rebels continued their attacks on the Christian districts of Damascus since November? What is the situation for Christians near the Old City?

M. Lahham: Yes, on daily basis. For instance, yesterday (Feb.12) a mortar shell hit the Bab Touma area near the Armenian church.

The Christians living near the old city of Damascus are protected by the government. They can go to work and study etc… But the mortars are still a major problem. I think the one million dollar question is this: why are Christians being targeted in all Syrian cities and villages in an organized way by the so-called “rebels”? We are a minority. We do not have any militia. We have a good historical relationship with all Muslims. There are even statements by their Prophet Muhammad that say that Christians have to be respected.

I think what is going now is an attempt to create a new Sykes-Picot Agreement and create new, smaller ethnic countries where there will be no place for Christians.

LR:  We are all hoping and praying for the release of the nuns, but what can you tell us about the general situation in Maaloula right now? Have any Christian residents been able to return to their homes, or do terrorists still control the village?

M. Lahham: Unfortunately, the situation is bad in Maaloula. The rebels control this area. Our Christian heritage has been destroyed. Graves have been desecrated and icons were stolen or burned. The Christian people of Maaloula are now in Damascus with no money or property.

LR: What can you tell us about the situation in Saidnaya right now?

M. Lahham: Saidnaya finds itself in a different situation than Maaloula. The people in Saidnaya decided to defend themselves. They carried weapons and created a local group to protect Saidnaya. Surprisingly, those armed people are made up of simple workers and employees. They work every day in Damascus and then return to Saidnaya in the afternoons and evenings, whereupon they work in shifts to protect the village. I have a friend from Saidnaya who is working as a driver; he couldn’t pick me up because he had a shift in Cherubim Mountain at that time. Two weeks ago, hundreds of rebels from Yabroud (the village where the nuns are being held hostage now) tried to occupy Saidnaya, but the Christians successfully protected their village. Now, Saidnaya is considered a “holy castle.” All people are afraid of a second attack and the rebels have been defeated there and are trying anything to win. After the battle, the rebels shelled the village for almost one week just to prove that they are strong.

LR: You spent many years directing the program for Iraqi refugees under the Orthodox Patriarchate’s Ecumenical Relations office. We understand that there are over one million Iraqi refugees in Greater Damascus, all displaced after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What can you tell us about the general plight of Iraqis in Damascus?

M. Lahham: The number of Iraqi refugees has sharply decreased. We still have Iraqis – especially those Christians who escaped sectarian violence in Iraq. Their situation is also bad. They are waiting for being resettled in the United States or any European country.

LR: President Obama, multiple congressmen, and mainstream American media, have all consistently presented the U.S. position on the Syria conflict as one of desiring “democracy and freedom”… American foreign policy claims to have the best interest of Syrians at heart. What are your thoughts on this?

M. Lahham: With all due respect to American people, we do not believe in Mr. Obama’s intentions. If you live in Syria, you are able understand the whole picture. The problem is not whether we have democracy or not. This is a clash between Russia and the United States – and the battlefield is Syria. Even worse, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are also players in the game. We do believe that when the Americans and the Russians reach any possible agreement about the investment of gas and oil in the Middle East region, and especially in the coastal area, everything will be solved.

Mr. Kerry, the U.S. secretary of foreign affairs announced that Congress approved of providing the rebels with lethal weapons during Geneva II Convention. It is clearly evident that this American administration does not want to work in the interest of the Syrian people.

And I would add the following: I think the American administration is not working in the best interest of the American people as well. They work in the best interest of the “imperial businessmen” in the oil and weapons industries.

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