2012-02-29 15:09:00

Russian Orthodox Church losing flock in Syria

Damascus, February 29, Interfax - Archimandrite Alexander (Yelisov), the Russian Orthodox Church's representative in Damascus, is concerned about the fast exodus of Russian-speaking parishioners from Syria.

"Russian citizens' position in Syria deteriorated sharply after Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution on Syria. The so-called liberation army and radical religious groups intimidate them, blame them for the Syrians' and their children's deaths, and want them to leave," Father Alexander said in an interview with the Interfax-Religion.

This sentiment has reached down to every-day contacts between people, he said.

"Our women are insulted out loud in some districts of Damascus. Sometimes taxi drivers deny a ride to Russian-speaking people. Even children can throw stones at people speaking the Russian language," the priest said.

Conducting church services involves risks, he said.

Father Alexander said the curtailment of the broad Russian presence is becoming a trend. "The general educational school at the Russian Embassy has been closed down and its personnel have left Syria. Women and children from the families of Russian citizens who work in Syria are leaving for home. Women and children from mixed families are leaving, too," he said.

The limits of Damascus are guarded by the military, so the situation in the city is relatively calm, which cannot be said about the suburbs, "where shots are often fired and security forces' sorties are common."

"The situation is about the same in Aleppo, Latakia and Tartus. But the border towns of Homs, Hama, Idleb and Daraa "have drowned in absolute chaos." Russian employees of the Stroyrtransgaz office have left Syria and so have other Russian-speaking citizens, he said.

The Russian Church's representative office is not guarded. A metal fence was put up around the church after repairs in 2004, "but it will be a poor shield should the crowd become aggressive or looting begin," Father Alexander said.

"Traveling has been impossible since April 2011, when the main north-bound motorways found themselves in the zone of military confrontation. I am afraid regular church services will have to be cut short in the turmoil I have described. Russian diplomats, too, insist that church services be stopped," he said.

The St. Ignatius parish in Damascus "has virtually dissolved," as most of its members were the families of Russian citizens working in Syria, as well as fully Orthodox families. They, too, have left the country. Just a dozen members have stayed, he said.

On the pastoral care for Russian servicemen in Syria, he said they and their families have always been actively involved in the church life. There was a Sunday school, mostly attended by their children. Only men have remained today and they try to attend services as often as they can, Father Alexander said.