On February 6th, 2023, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck regions of southern Turkey and northern Syria. Widespread devastation to civilian life and infrastructure resulted from this catastrophe, and communities suffering from the destruction struggled to muster a concerted response to the resulting humanitarian crisis. In Syria particularly, efforts to respond to the calamity were burdened further by the lingering resultants of a brutal and persistent civil war. In the face of such struggle, an altogether distant, yet not unfamiliar, community emerged to lend its support. In response to the crisis in Syria, the Reformed Church of Transcarpathia (RCT) raised a tremendous aid package of €30,000 to support the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL) and the Armenian Protestant Community in Syria in their efforts to respond to this crisis.
The Reformed Church in Transcarpathia represents roughly 60,000 members in over 100 parishes throughout Western Ukraine as part of the wider Hungarian reformed community. On the other hand, NESSL represents a collective of evangelical congregations worshipping in Syria and Lebanon for over two hundred years. The Armenian Protestant Community in Syria is part of the broader Union of the Armenian Evangelical Churches in the Near East (UAECNE). The UAECNE, NESSL, and the RCT are all members of the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Beyond their ongoing ecumenical connections, these communities connected on an even deeper level of solidarity and understanding.
Following the escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the RCT responded to the resulting humanitarian crisis. The war drove internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the fighting in Eastern Ukraine to the country's western region. The RCT responded, faithfully serving its community, providing shelter for IDPs, caring for older adults and those in need, and providing youth programs. Despite these challenges, “[the RCT] have witnessed a tremendous unity and solidarity not only among the Hungarian communities in the broader region (the Carpathian Basin) but also from many of our sister churches from all over the world,” says Bishop Sándor Zán Fábián, head of the RCT. These words are part of a wider circular communique disseminated throughout the RCT community following the earthquake in Syria.
In this circular letter, Bishop Zán Fábián heartens his community to the struggles faced by those in Syria, saying, “When our brothers and sisters are in an even more desperate situation, when we see the devastation caused by the natural disaster, and how many lives, families and communities have been left in a hopeless situation because of the losses, we want to encourage and help them to keep hope in these difficult times.” As a result of Bishop ZánFábián’s moving appeal and a deeply sympathetic understanding of the crisis, the Reformed churches in Transcarpathia raised €30,000 to support the communities in Syria during their time of crisis.
The aid money was sent to NESSL and the Armenian Protestant Community through Gustav-Adolf-Werks (GAW), Germany's oldest nationwide evangelical aid organization, with a longstanding history of supporting Christian minorities in Europe and beyond. In a newsletter, GAW described the aid as a moment of “kairos,” or opportunity, saying such action “is a sign that NOW is the time to do good!” GAW quickly increased and forwarded the funds so that each community, NESSL and the Armenian Protestant Community in Syria, would receive €20,000 in emergency support. “This is solidarity in action,” said Enno Haaks, general secretary of GAW.
The Armenian Protestant Community plans to direct aid funds toward three vital areas: reconstruction efforts, support for families, and community resilience training and initiatives. In terms of reconstruction, a large part of the aid will go toward rebuilding places of worship and community centers damaged or destroyed by the earthquake; these places are at the heart of community gathering and fellowship. Additionally, many families require support with temporary housing, essential supplies, and medical assistance for those injured in the disaster. Looking forward, there are plans to invest in programs that will bolster the community's resilience in the future. These trainings and initiatives focus specifically on disaster preparedness, education on earthquake-resistant construction techniques, and supporting local initiatives that encourage self-sufficiency. Harout Selimian, the President of the Armenian Protestant Community, says, “The objective is not just to rebuild physical structures but also to help our community members rebuild their lives and restore a sense of normalcy after this tragic event.”
The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon responded to the RCT aid, expressing the immense impact this gift had on the hearts of its community. In the letter, Rev. Joseph Kassab, the General Secretary of NESSL, says, “There is nothing more valuable than a gift that comes from the afflicted to the afflicted.” The donation from RCT will help fund NESSL’s rental assistance program in response to the earthquake, the restoration of several houses damaged in the disaster, and the renovation of NESSL’s churches in Aleppo and Hama, which also saw damage following the earthquake. These endeavors are part of a second phase in NESSL’s disaster response; the first phase focuses on immediate response, including opening shelters and providing food, water, mattresses, and heating fuel.