International News

Priests, Parishes Unite to Aid Local Families Affected by Turkey-Syria Earthquake

A street is seen in Aleppo, Syria, Feb. 7, 2023, one day after two powerful earthquakes destroyed buildings and killed thousands of people in the region along the border between Turkey and Syria. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Unimaginable images of a father holding onto his teenage daughter’s hand as she lay dead under a collapsed building and babies being pulled from the rubble of an earthquake that devastated parts of Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6 hit especially close to home for families in Brooklyn and Queens with relatives in the ravaged region. 

The original earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, was followed by another tremor of almost equal magnitude and resulted in at least 145 recorded aftershocks. 

With a death toll of more than 36,000 and rising, local parishes have issued pleas to their parishioners to help aid relief efforts. Among the Turkish areas with the most casualties are Hatay, Kahramanmaras, Gaziantep, and Adiyaman. In Syria, the most casualties were reported in the provinces of Aleppo, Hama, and the western coastal seaport city of Latakia. 

The once thriving city of Aleppo has endured more than a decade of suffering from a civil war raging between government-controlled areas and rebel-held towns, not to mention a recent cholera outbreak.

The Church of the Virgin Mary, a Melkite Catholic parish in Park Slope, has many families from Aleppo in its congregation, according to the church’s pastor, Father Antoine Rizk. 

“Many of our parishioners have families in Aleppo, and the country was already facing the tragedies of war,” said Father Rizk. “It badly affected our parishioners here, with many of them in a state of panic, wondering how their families are surviving in Aleppo.” 

Father Rizk said those families are being offered spiritual consolation and a measure of hope along with financial assistance from his congregation. He added that their foremost thought is how to take care of their families as they struggle through the aftermath of the earthquake. He specifically mentioned prayers for Father Imad Daher, a Melkite Catholic priest who was killed in the quake, and for a parishioner from the Syrian border city of Qamishli, who is still awaiting word about the fate of her parents.

Father Thomas Zain, pastor at St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Brooklyn Heights, called the devastation heartbreaking. 

“We’ve heard from our Patriarch John X, who is the patriarch of Antioch and all the east, where the majority of the devastation happened,” Father Zain said. “And the devastation is just unbearable, with so many buildings, churches, and mosques having been destroyed as the toll of people killed or trapped under buildings rises by the hour.” 

All Catholic and Orthodox Churches have united to issue a joint statement, signed by the three patriarchs of the region: Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef I, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II, and Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, demanding that the U.N. lift sanctions so humanitarian aid can be delivered.

“I have a parishioner who is from Antioch whose mother and sister are buried under the rubble of their building,” said Father Zain. “He heard reports that his sister was crying out for help, but no sounds from the mother.” 

He added that he has been told that 20% of the Christians in Antioch had perished in the earthquake.

Father Michael Ellias, pastor of St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Bay Ridge, said that his parish has many parishioners with families living in Syria. The tragic effects of the earthquake were especially brutal, he noted, because “it struck [a war-torn] area that is not under the control of the Syrian government but rather under the so-called rebel control.”

“In fact, the area it struck was Antioch itself, the original biblical Antioch where the disciples were first called Christians in the Book of Acts,” Father Ellias explained. “We will pray for those people continuously so that we can support their relief and recovery.”

Father Khader Khalilia, pastor at Redeemer St. John’s Lutheran Church in Dyker Heights, also emphasized the need for immediate relief to the region and echoed the call for sanctions to be lifted to allow humanitarian aid to reach those who need it. 

“We have parishioners who still do not know if their families are alive or not. Some of them had their homes destroyed and are currently displaced. Some are awaiting word of their relatives who are under the ruins and still not accounted for,” Father Khalilia said.

Bishop Gregory Mansour of the Eparchy of Saint Maron of Brooklyn, explained that the church has three Maronite bishops in the region, one in Damascus, whose residence sustained structural damage, another in Latakia, and the third in Aleppo. 

Bishop Mansour, who also serves as pastor at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Catholic Church in Brooklyn, added that the Diocese of Brooklyn has always been the first to serve the poor and emphasized that 10% of the Syrian population is Christian and must not be forgotten.

John Abi-Habib, who serves as honorary consul of Lebanon from New Jersey, said his family in Lebanon felt the magnitude of the earthquake’s aftershock. 

Abi-Habib, who officially speaks on behalf of the Lebanese government and is a parishioner at Our Lady of Lebanon added that the Salaam Club of New York has already taken up collections from its members, many of whom have family living in Syria. He said this united effort on behalf of all the churches is a testament to the Christian faith and the true meaning of evangelization in a time of need. 

“This is a prime example of the good work that the Catholic Church and the other churches do,” he said. “While people sometimes focus more on the bad publicity, this is a perfect example of the millions of people the Church helps daily through its many organizations and charities. 

“Whenever there is a need, the Church is always there.”