ISTANBUL –– In a Catholic church in Istanbul in late December, Father Lorenzo Piretto led about a hundred people in prayer.Syrian refugee boy flashes peace sign along border in Turkey A Syrian refugee boy flashes a peace sign along the border in Kilis, Turkey, in mid-September. More than 1 million Syrian refugees are under 18, about 740,000 under 11, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. (CNS photo/Michael Swan, The Catholic Register)
“We pray for an end to the war in Syria, and for all of those far from their homes,” he told the crowd of mostly foreigners.
Among them was Omar el-Yassin, a 22-year-old from the Syrian city of Aleppo, and one of the very few Muslims in attendance.
El-Yassin fled the civil war in his country last July and has been working in an Istanbul wholesale clothing factory since.
“Even in 10 years, it won’t get better in Syria because the superpowers have put too many conditions which cannot happen,” he told Catholic News Service an hour after the Dec. 28 gathering at the Church of St. Mary Draperis.
Such conditions were preventing sufficient aid to Muslim opposition groups “which have the widest support in Syria,” he said, adding that he knew personally some members of the Muslim opposition now fighting in his country, and “they have nothing against other religions.”
“The troublemakers are the (Muslim extremist opposition) foreigners coming into Syria from outside,” he said.
His comments coincided with media reports that Syrian President Bashar Assad sent a message to Pope Francis regarding the ongoing conflict in Syria, which pits mostly Muslim opposition forces against forces loyal to Assad’s autocratic, secular regime.
In a separate statement, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences announced a Jan. 13 meeting of world leaders to discuss the tragedy unfolding in Syria, the political stances of the major international players involved and possible solutions.
The U.N. and other international humanitarian aid agencies say the war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people, decimated Syrian cities and towns, and destroyed the country’s economy.
They estimate that 2.2 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, including Turkey, which shares a 560-mile border with Syria. Another 6.5 million Syrians are displaced within their own country, and aid agencies warn they could soon be out of resources to deal with the increasingly desperate humanitarian situation.
Syrian Bahoz Kinjou, 22, came to Turkey in late September after shrapnel from a bomb in Aleppo ripped into his 18-year-old brother’s groin.
“(My brother) needed an operation in his sensitive area, but we did not have the required money, Kinjou told CNS. “My father died four years ago, and there is only me, my younger brother, my mother and my sister, so I had to find a way.”
He said he had spent the past three months employed in an Istanbul wholesale vegetable market, sending his salary as he earned it back home to Syria to cover the costs of his brother’s medical treatment there.
He said he was leaving that evening on the 16-hour bus journey to the Turkish-Syrian border, and that he planned to cross back over and home to Aleppo, where he had interrupted his mechanical engineering studies at a university.
“The operation is done, and now my brother is getting better,” he said. “I will try to make up the classes I have missed. I had no other choice.”