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‘A crisis within multiple crises’: Amid ongoing civil war, Syrians face mass casualties from 7.8-magnitude quake

A woman reacts while embracing another person Feb.7, 2023, near rubble following an earthquake in Hatay, Turkey. A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked areas of Turkey and Syria early Feb. 6, toppling hundreds of buildings and killing thousands. (OSV News photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)

By Dale Gavlak

AMMAN, Jordan (OSV News) — Catholic and other humanitarian agencies are calling Monday’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake and a second tremor striking southern Turkey and northern Syria “tragic” and are appealing for aid.

They are assisting Syrians in the north of the country — people affected by more than a decade of civil war. “The situation in Aleppo is dangerous. Many buildings have fallen and digging continues relentlessly through the rubble. So far, we have lost 40 buildings which have collapsed in the earthquake,” Andrea Avveduto, communications chief for Pro Terra Sancta, told OSV News.

More than 1500 are reported dead and thousands more injured and missing in Syria as of 5 a.m. Eastern on Feb. 7. The total number of casualties in Turkey and Syria is 5,000 and rising.

“We don’t yet have the entire situation clear because communication lines have been badly affected. Buildings are still falling down. They are already damaged by the war and so every time there are tremors, buildings collapse,” Avveduto said.

Pro Terra Sancta, based in Jerusalem and Milan, supports the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land. Since the start of the conflict, it has aided Franciscan fathers in Syria by opening four emergency centers in Damascus, Latakia, Aleppo, Knayeh and Yacoubieh, the latter places of which are found in northwest Syria.

In the region surrounding the northwestern city of Aleppo, “a lot of people fled their homes fearing more aftershocks and went to the Franciscan convent in Aleppo to shelter. They fear returning home,” Avveduto explained.

“We have more than 200 people in our Terra Sancta College seeking safety. We’re providing them with food and everything that they need. Now, it is very cold, they don’t have gas or electricity.”

Shocks from the earthquakes hit a number of cities in Syria, including Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Hama and Latakia, also affecting internally displaced people across Syria’s north.

The earthquake hit as a winter storm is expected to engulf the northern Levant in the coming hours as temperatures plummet and snow is predicted, making rescue efforts even more complicated.

More than 45 countries have offered to assist Turkey in rescue and recovery, including the United States, Britain, France, Poland and Israel, but observers fear that Syria, under international sanctions due to the civil war, may see little international help.

Pro Terra Sancta, for several years, has endured difficulty getting aid into Syria due to the sanctions that forbid the transfer of funds into the country, particularly into the north, from Lebanon and Jordan.

Pro Terra Sancta says those funds must get to the Franciscans to help those in need. Franciscan priests also aid small, besieged Christian communities in Syria’s northwest where Islamist groups, including the so-called Islamic State militants, operate.

“I have been trying to speak with our friars under rebel siege but have been unable to because there’s great difficulty with telephone lines and the internet,” Avveduto added.

Other Christian organizations operating in Aleppo report that many people are “traumatized and much damage is experienced throughout the city.” People in Afrin under rebel control have reported bad damage, deaths and injuries from the quake. While others in Homs report bad tremors, but minimal damage.

“There are unconfirmed reports of several fatalities among Christian communities,” Joop Koopman, director of communications of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) USA wrote in an email received by OSV News.

At least one priest, Father Emad Daher, was killed when a building collapsed in Aleppo, Koopman confirmed. Another Christian man who was in the building, the residence of Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart, at the time also died. Melkite Emeritus Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo narrowly escaped death and is in the hospital.

Aid to the Church in Need also has received unconfirmed reports of deaths among Christian families in Aleppo and Latakia and reports of at least 20 injuries among Christians in Hama.

There are also accounts of structural damage to some buildings, such as at the Syriac Orthodox Cathedral of St. George in Aleppo and the Franciscan Church in Latakia, and minor damage to the ACN-supported Hope Center, also in Aleppo, Aid to the Church in Need confirmed.

“The Church in Syria is shocked by the catastrophe. Even as far away as Beirut, people went down to the streets, worried that another explosion was about to unsettle their country. For now, the church is checking on its people and families. All ACN staff in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus are doing fine,” said Regina Lynch, director of projects for ACN International, who also called for prayers for all those who were killed, wounded or otherwise affected by the natural disaster.

The archbishop of Homs, Jean Abdo Arbach, said that the 30 seconds the earthquake lasted “completely changed the lives of thousands of people.”

“Let us hope the earthquake shakes open the hearts of the international communities and of all world leaders, so that they help Syria and do not forget the people who are suffering,” he underlined.

“The population is in a state of absolute despair and anguish. There are people wandering through the streets, not knowing where to go, and desperately searching for family and friends. Many people have died or are missing,” Archbishop Arbach, who is also the director of the Syrian branch of Caritas, told ACN.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) expressed its concerns for those in Turkey and Syria.

“Freezing temperatures have left thousands exposed to extreme cold, and now many are without shelter. With buildings collapsing as people slept, there are fears that hundreds still remain trapped in rubble across southern Turkey and inside war-torn Syria. Search and rescue operations are ongoing,” a press statement said.

“Initial reports from IRC staff on the ground in Syria indicate that the impact has been devastating in areas that already host a high number of displaced and vulnerable families. This tragic incident comes just after the country was hit by a snowstorm that has seen temperatures plummet,” the New York-based international aid agency said.

“As the number of injured continues to rise, there are very real concerns about the ability of an already decimated health system to cope inside Syria. Following years of conflict, hospitals in northern Syria are overstretched as they grapple with a recent cholera outbreak,” the IRC said.

“This earthquake is yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable populations already struggling after years of conflict,” Tanya Evans, the IRC Syria country director, warned.

“Women and children will find themselves particularly at risk of exploitation and abuse should they find themselves once again displaced. Many in northwest Syria have been displaced up to 20 times and with health facilities strained beyond capacity. Even before this tragedy, many did not have access to the health care they critically need,” she said.

The opposition’s Syrian Civil Defense called the devastation in the rebel-held northwest region “disastrous.” It urged people to evacuate buildings to gather in open areas. Emergency rooms were full of injured, said Amjad Rass, president of the Syrian American Medical Society.

Millions of Syrians in the country’s northwest have been left vulnerable by the nearly 12-year conflict, according to the United Nations. It says 2.9 million people there have been displaced and 1.8 million live in camps.

People in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt also reported feeling the tremors from the earthquake, with some in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, reporting buildings violently shaking. The earthquake’s epicenter was in Turkey’s Gaziantep area.

Dale Gavlak writes for OSV News from Amman, Jordan.

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