'No light at the end of the tunnel': Future of Christians in Syria, Lebanon under threat

Damaged furniture is seen in the foreground as people attend Sunday mass at the partially damaged St. Antoine Church on August 16, 2020, in Beirut, Lebanon. The explosion at Beirut's port last week killed over 200 people, injured thousands, and upended countless lives. There has been little visible support from government agencies to help residents clear debris and help the displaced, although scores of volunteers from around Lebanon have descended on the city to help clean. | Getty Images/Chris McGrath

A "mass exodus" of "desperate" Christians from Syria and Lebanon is threatening the future presence of the faith in the two countries, a church leader has warned.

The 2023 Religious Freedom in the World Report by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) shows how the Christian population in Syria fell from 6.31% of the population to 3.84% between 2016 and 2021. 

Estimates about the number of Christians in Lebanon vary but the CIA Factbook currently puts their proportion of the population at around a third (32.4%). This is below figures cited by a 2010 report by the U.S. State Department estimating Christians in Lebanon to be over 40% at the time.

Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi told ACN that Christians in the Middle East are leaving their homelands despite appeals from the Church to remain. 

He told the Catholic charity that Christians "no longer have confidence in their country" and "there is no light at the end of the tunnel."

Both Syria and Lebanon have been hit hard by extreme economic hardship and the pandemic. Syria's problems have been compounded by an ongoing civil war.

It has been hard to give Christians hope, especially as the situation has not improved, Patriarch Absi explained.

"There have always been waves of emigration. Nowadays it is a mix of economic, social and political reasons," he said. 

"We are still doing everything possible to help our faithful, to provide them with essential services. But we cannot replace the governments.

"There is no light at the end of the tunnel, we do not see a short-term solution.

"Without support we can no longer convince them to stay."

He is calling on the West to lift sanctions against Syria that he says are negatively impacting the general population.

"I think that our friends can exert pressure in one way or another on their governments, and sometimes even on the religious leaders, to help in this direction or to ensure that the sanctions are lifted," he said. 

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