In any situation of crisis or conflict, the provision of humanitarian assistance aims to address basic needs related to the subsistence of those most deeply impacted. Responding to food security, water, sanitation, hygiene and shelter needs involves technical considerations requiring immediate attention. However, the provision of humanitarian assistance also provides an opportunity to engage affected communities in less obvious, but equally critical, strategic work aimed at the preservation of social cohesion within diverse communities. Through grassroots initiatives that foster positive relationships within communities threatened by the divisive factors of sectarianism, solidarity and trust can be achieved and sustained in the midst of open conflict. This conviction lies at the center of the philosophy of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD) as it approaches its work in providing humanitarian assistance to
internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Syria.
Although the Syrian crisis has spared few as it has moved from village to village, certain areas have remained relative safe havens for those forced to flee their homes as the result of intense and often indiscriminate violence. The Qalamoun region, straddling the highway from Damascus to Homs in central Syria, is one such area. The diverse composition of the region provides a distinctive context to observe the tactical practice of distributing humanitarian assistance in a multi-faith environment as means of strengthening social cohesion and trust-building between different faith groups during periods of open sectarian conflict.
Long known for their hospitality, the people of Qalamoun responded with open arms to those who came seeking refuge from the intense violence in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. In addition to welcoming displaced families into their shops, homes and schools, the people of Qalamoun immediately began organizing efforts to provide food and hygiene items to their new guests. As more and more IDPs arrived, and the need for humanitarian support quickly became evident, FDCD worked with its contacts in the Qalamoun region to form a local interfaith network of distributors and coordinators to respond to the crisis.
The purposeful inclusion of both Christian and Muslim partners in this process allowed not only the successful distribution of in-kind assistance to displaced families, but also helped to establish trust and cooperation between different faith groups. This approach has proved highly successful. As seen in the following case, this collaboration serves as a powerful example of how interfaith coexistence and solidarity are possible for both the host and IDP communities during a time when most external factors and voices appear to work counter to the idea of social cohesion.
Despite Qalamoun’s reputation as a safe haven from the fighting that has ravaged Syria, its strategic location along the highway from Damascus to Homs has made it an attractive target for both the government and opposition forces. In October and November 2013 the allure of controlling this strategic location intensified as militant groups associated with the opposition attempted to wrest control from the Syrian government. Beginning in the village of Sadad and moving from village to village southward, forces aligned with the opposition moved into each village and immediately took control of vehicles and structures like homes, schools and churches. In many cases, the armed groups refused to allow the local residents to evacuate the area.
For those who were able to flee, the confiscation of their vehicles forced hundreds to leave on foot. In response, FDCD’s network of partners throughout the region quickly coordinated an effort to provide transportation for those forced to evacuate. When the presence of Islamist extremists in the area caused the movement of non-Muslims to be risky and greatly hindered, the Muslim communities of Qalamoun utilized their own vehicles to facilitate the safe evacuation of members of the Christian community to other villages in the area. In this regard, the deep partnership facilitated through the organization and distribution of humanitarian assistance in Qalamoun proved to be invaluable in the protection of the Christian community during this period of persecution and crisis.
A few weeks after the Syrian government regained control of Sadad, another group of militants associated with the opposition attacked the village of Deir Attieh. Proceeding in the same manner as the attack on Sadad, vehicles, structures and civilians were utilized by rebel forces in an effort to inhibit the Syrian military’s efforts to retake the village. On one occasion, as the militants moved through the village, they attempted to enter the local Syrian Orthodox church. Upon entering the building, the armed persons were shocked to find members of Deir Attieh’s Muslim community standing in the sanctuary. As the armed personnel approached, the Muslim residents of the community were resolute: “If you wish to defile this church and harm these people,” they stated, “you will have to kill us first!” Upon hearing this, the militants left the building.
It is reasonable to assume that the consequences of the Battle for Qalamoun would have been far greater than the mere destruction of property without the network of inter-community and inter-faith partnerships facilitated through the local organization and distribution of humanitarian assistance. The strategic benefits of this deliberate approach to humanitarian distribution by an interreligious network for the maintenance of social cohesion in a time of conflict are clear.
A historically diverse host community in Qalamoun continues, to this day, to provide an example for how Muslims and Christians can not only live together, but thrive together. As many communities in Syria fall prey to the vicious cycles of hate, exclusion and persecution, FDCD sees great value and potential in this local approach to humanitarian assistance. Though the timeline for the Syrian crisis is unknown, steps must be taken now to preserve the social fabric of historically diverse and vibrant communities. If these steps are not taken, such communities run the risk of allowing hate and sectarianism to take old and destroy any semblance of mutual understanding, respect, coexistence and dialogue.
Riad Jarjour is General Secretary of the Arab Group for Muslim-Christian Dialogue and president of the Forum for Development, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), based in Lebanon. Andrew Long-Higgins is a former Intern at FDCD.