(CNA)- “Fortunately, the battles are over for now. There was fierce fighting in Al Nabek all through Advent. No one was able to flee. The people were trapped. Peace was then finally restored in the week before Christmas. But you never know.”
Sister Houda Fadoul sounds relieved. The Syrian Catholic nun presides over a congregation of women religious near Al Nabek, a city of around 50,000 inhabitants, located 50 miles south of Homs, halfway to Damascus.
The local flock is comprised of just 120 families, for a total Catholic population of 500, which is served by two parishes: one Syrian Catholic, the other Melkite.
It is now mid-winter and the town—which has by and large remained under government control since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011—is enjoying a lull in the clashes between the government and Islamist extremists.
However, the threat of fresh fighting is always looming.
“The jihadists are not far away,” Sr. Fadoul told Aid to the Church in Need. “We Christians are scared of them. But so are the Muslims of Al Nabek.”
“After all, the jihadists also kill Muslims. No one wants them here. In Al Nabek, the Christians and Muslims are like family.”
Some 90 Christian houses were destroyed or damaged during the battles late last year.
“The jihadists thought that the government would spare them if they attacked in the Christian district,” Sr. Fadoul said. “But that was not the case. There was fierce fighting here. However, the Christian district lies unprotected on a hill. And so the Christian houses were hit especially hard. The people hid for weeks in cellars.”
Sr. Foudal’s priority is trying to do something about the acute housing shortage.
“Many families either don’t have a flat at all anymore, or the ones they have are uninhabitable. We must help these people. The Christians of Al Nabek don’t want to leave. They want to stay at home. However, to make this possible, their houses need to be rebuilt,” she said.
Some only have broken panes of glass or damaged power lines. Other houses, on the other hand, have been gutted.
“These people are now living in emergency housing. They have lost everything. They urgently need mattresses, gas stoves, blankets and a host of household items,” the sister added.
Life in Al Nabek has not been easy for a long time, even before the recent round of clashes.
“We often don’t have any electricity. The people sit in the dark. There is also a shortage of heating fuel. Neither diesel nor wood is available. And the winter gets cold. The people suffer,” reported Sr. Fadoul, adding that the price of food, when it is even available, has gone sky high.
The state of medical care is very poor, a situation worsened by a chronic shortage of medicine.
“However, the biggest problem here is that there is no work. Many factories have closed or have been destroyed. The young men are unemployed. We have to take care of them,” said Sr. Fadoul, part of whose mission is to find ways to supply small local businesses with raw materials.
“I am thinking of carpenters. We could supply them with wood. And we could also help small stores that sell batteries or torches by providing them with goods,” she said.
However, despite all the hardship, Sr. Fadoul insists that the people’s faith has not suffered.
“The Christians here are very brave. They celebrated a large Mass of Thanksgiving after the most recent battles. The destroyed houses are one thing. They don’t consider that so important.”
“Instead, they thanked God for the fact that they are still alive. We have to help the people regain their hope and faith that they can have a future in Syria. If not, we will lose them.”
Oliver Maksan writes for Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA);www.acnuk.org (UK);www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL);www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)