A Syrian religious sister has described life for Aleppo Christians under attack from rebels and jihadists opposed to the government of Bashar Al Assad.
Catholic Sister Annie Demerjian said that the relentless shelling of civilian areas of western part of the city, where all of Aleppo’s Christians are sheltering, meant that “death is everywhere”.
Speaking in St Columba’s Church, Chester, Sister Annie described how either Syrian rebels or international jihadists belonging to either the so-called Islamic State or the Al Nusra Front – formerly an affiliate of Al Qaeda – chose Easter Saturday to bombard Christian civilians who are surrounded in Syria’s largest city.
She said that at least four entire families were killed by a shower of 12 rockets and she also described the agony of families trying to find the body parts of loved ones so they could bury them.
The member of the Sisters of Jesus and Mary told how she found one man weeping because he had discovered his daughter’s hand more than two weeks after she and her husband and two children were killed in a rocket attack.
She said: “Death is everywhere and destruction does not exclude a building, a street, a school, a hotel or a mosque.
“Imagine children sitting at their desks and a shell falls blowing off the doors and shattering the windows.
“Imagine teachers running to find children huddled in remote corners while outside people are killed and their neighbours run to the school looking for their children.”
She said there were many casualties with one Christian child recently losing both legs and both arms in a rebel attack.
“People are tired,” Sister Annie said.
“Give us a moment of peace and security,” she continued. “In everyday life we are familiar with death.”
Sister Annie is in the UK as a guest of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) and was this week due to address MPs and peers at an event in Parliament.
In Aleppo, she helps to deliver emergency assistance to about 550 Christian households – especially to the sick and elderly – on behalf of ACN.
During her public addresses the sister has deliberately avoided making any political remarks about the six-year conflict, insisting that what the people of her country most needed was peace.
But in an interview with Catholic News Service, an American press agency, she last week expressed the view that media reporting of the war in the West was biased in favour of the jihadists.
She questioned why the focus of outrage was on the suffering of one side of the conflict and not the other.
“There are shells and bombs from everywhere falling all over Aleppo. Both sides are suffering,” she said, adding that western media coverage was “not fair”.
“We don’t see a balance,” she said. “Last week nobody spoke about a (Christian) woman who pulled her son from a balcony without his head, and just a river of blood coming out of his neck.”
She said the adult son had rushed outside when a rebel shell had landed nearby and he heard shouts in the street.
His head was blown off was struck by a second shell. “His mother was crying ‘come in, come in’,” said Sister Annie. “She pulled him to find he had no head.”
She continued: “Nobody spoke about that, nothing. There are many stories like that. It is very painful when shells are falling in residential areas. Many people die.
“Sometimes their families and friends have to collect the pieces of the bodies – a hand here, a leg there, body parts in other places – but nobody is talking about it,” she said.
“Why is the world silent about it? People don’t know what is happening.”
The comments of Sister Annie come as Britain and the US ratchet up their criticism of the bombardment by Syrian forces of rebel and terrorist positions with the help of Russian jets.
Assad is determined to defeat more than a 1,000 jihadists who have entrenched themselves in civilian areas of eastern Aleppo while they attack government regions on the western side of the city.
Media in the West has repeatedly run stories about the child casualties of the bombardment while the US, the UK and France have suggested that Russia and Syria may be committing war crimes.
Russia has rejected the allegations insisting instead that it was “achieving results” against terrorists when western military intervention was failing.
Major General Igor Konashenkov of the Russian Ministry of Defence issued a statement in response to criticism from the British Government which asked: “Where was Great Britain when ISIS almost reached the shores of the Mediterranean, almost turning Syria into a terrorist caliphate – in the same way that happened in Libya thanks to your efforts?”
As Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson hosted a meeting on Syria with his counterparts, the Stop the War Coalition described western “sabre rattling” as irresponsible.
A spokeswoman said: “The situation in Syria is critical. Foreign military interventions, notably by the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Russia, are prolonging the war and the misery of the Syrian people.
“Most of the people who are leading the clamour for western escalation in Parliament, including MPs Ann Clywd, Andrew Mitchell, John Woodcock and Johnson himself, have voted for every war they could over the last 15 years. Given the disasters caused by intervention in Iraq, Libya and now Syria, this should in itself discount their opinions on matters of war.”
She added: “What is needed in Syria is not more bombs and intervention but de-escalation and a concerted push for a negotiated settlement. Boris Johnson’s outbursts and other calls for military action damage the chances of peace and must end.”
The ACN North West event also heard an address by Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, who spoke of his hopes that inter-faith dialogue would help to ease the persecution of Christians in his country.
“The blasphemy law is being misused against Christians and that must stop,” he said, adding that because the Christian faith could not condone paying “evil with evil” the solution to the persecution was dialogue with the Muslim majority.
Meetings, he said, had been held with many senior Muslim scholars and imams in the hope of achieving change.
“We explained that they (the meetings) were not to convert anybody and it was not about a western agenda, but to learn from one another – what you believe and what we believe,” said Archbishop Shaw.
“It is a success,” he said.
“This is the beginning,” the archbishop continued. “But one thing is vital for this type of dialogue and that is we should know what we believe. We must know who Christ is and what his teachings are.”
(Photos by Simon Caldwell)