Now in its third year, the civil war in Syria has been labeled by the United Nations as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. In an April 22, 2014, letter to U.S. President Barack Obama, a group of religious leaders in the United States -- including the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) -- is calling on the Obama administration to develop a “robust U.S. strategy to help end the violence in Syria through political solutions, provide much needed humanitarian assistance and protect the human rights of minorities and vulnerable populations.”
The letter cited that an estimated 140,000 people have been killed in Syria since the violence and unrest started in 2011. “Included in that number are 11,000 children. Violence against civilian populations -- including the use of explosives in heavily populated areas -- has gone unchecked by all sides,” the letter stated. The United States “has the political leverage to work with the UN and other nations in the region to advance efforts to end the violence against civilians, respect international humanitarian law, and pursue diplomatic options for a political end to the conflict.”
“As people of faith, we will pray for the people of Syria and for wisdom and courage for you and your Administration as you seek to respond to their plight. We commit to action in our own communities of faith so that neither the Syrian crisis nor the international responsibility to respond to it is forgotten,” the leaders wrote. Eaton is one of 21 U.S. faith leaders who signed the letter.
While ELCA members have contributed more than $1 million to support humanitarian efforts, “more financial support from our congregations is needed to allow this church to continue its response” in addressing the needs of Syrian refugees and internally displaced people, said Vitaly Vorona who, this past February, visited the Za’atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. As a church, “we will continue to pray for the dignity of refugees located in the camps,” said Vorona, program director for Lutheran Disaster Response -- International.
“Jordan has opened a new refugee camp, an expression of the government’s need to continue responding” to the increasing number of Syrians entering the country, said the Rev. Robert O. Smith, ELCA program director for the Middle East and North Africa. In January, Smith visited the Za’atari camp in conjunction with a visit by ELCA young adult leaders.
“The Lutheran World Federation has opened a new field office in Jordan to help oversee response efforts. And according to recent reports, Syrian refugees are working to enter Europe through Turkey,” said Smith. “The treatment they are receiving in countries like Bulgaria is very harsh and concerning,” he said, adding that addressing the needs of refugees “is not just limited to the Middle East alone. The refugee crisis continues to spread. For Christians in Syria, the violence continues to remain unpredictable. Through our partners, the ELCA is present and continues to respond with our global communion in several places.”
In a January statement to a U.S. Senate subcommittee, the ELCA said it “believes that the degree of violence within Syria makes necessary the use of resettlement as a humanitarian tool for the most vulnerable” and that the U.S. “has both a moral obligation to individual refugees and to the international community to begin immediately accepting Syrian refugees into the U.S. refugee resettlement program.”
The ELCA response is conducted in partnership with The Lutheran World Federation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land, and with companion Orthodox churches in Syria. ELCA funds have, in particular, supported mothers and children in the Za’atari camp, as well as camp management and access to proper shelter and housing.
Through a partnership with the Syriac Orthodox Church, the ELCA has also provided food, hygiene kits and other non-food items to support the people of Syria, as well as addressing health care concerns and psychosocial care. Rental subsidies, tuition fees and classes have been made available to help alleviate some of the economic burdens faced by displaced families in Syria.