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Dangerous situation for Christians and aid workers

The situation for Christians in Syria is often unpleasant. Priests have been murdered and two bishops remain missing. Now aid workers are being targeted - putting humanitarian help at risk.

Syrian rebels inspect a tank that was left behind by government forces following clashes in the outskirts of the northern city of Raqqa on July 1, 2013. (Photo: MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images)

Violence in Syria is all-inclusive - and doesn't spare aid groups or minorities.

Amid all, there's some good news: two of the three kidnapped German aid workers from the Grünhelme (Green Helmets) have been freed. The two men, an industrial mechanic and a construction engineer, the German Foreign Office says, are now safe and sound and on their way back to Germany. The fate of the third abducted man, an engineer, however, remains unclear. Crisis staff at the Foreign Office continue to work hard to determine his whereabouts, a ministry spokesperson says. The aid organization, based in Troisdorf, near Bonn, refused to comment on the situation.

The three men were abducted from their home in the village of Harem, near the Turkish border in mid-May. There, they were looking after locals in the village and “were welcome among the population,” the association which deals with reconstruction in crisis areas around the world wrote on their website.

Organizations do not want to attract attention

Despite their joy at the men's release, the aid organization, warns of the situation still faced by many in the area. “There is a great possibility of being hurt, or kidnapped in armed conflicts,” Simone Pott, press officer for the German aid organization Welthungerhilfe tells DW in an interview. It's because ofthis that the organization relies on much of the needed help to be carried out by local partners or employees - all with the aim to attract as little attention as possoble.

Rupert Neudeck has founded Cap-Anamur und Grünhelme (Photo: dpa)

Grünhelme founder Rupert Neudeck remains silent, an employee remains missing

More than eight million people - more than 40-percent of the Syrian population - are in need of assistance, according to Welthungerhilfe. Of these, half are refugees in their own country, with about 1.6 million seeking refuge in neighboring countries. Because of the dire need, Welthungerhilfe made the decision six months ago to enter Syria for the first time.

A call every hour

Logistics play a key role in the work of Welthungerhilfe: Supplies are purchased in Turkey, and trucked to the Syrian border. At the border crossing in Kilis the goods then have to change vehicles because Turkish trucks are not permitted to cross the border. The driver - often a local - will then bring the supplies to a distribution site, where they are then redistributed. Welthungerhilfe or one of their partner organizations oversees the operation.

"There are of course protective measures and security arrangements in place, which are routine, because we don't just work in challenging areas in Syria," says Pott. Standard practices include: not driving in the dark and calling the office every hour to have employees log workers movements. "Of course we try to protect our employees as much as possible, but in situations of war, there is always some residual risk, which we cannot rule out."

Checkpoints are especially dangerous. "They never know who is going to be there, if they are going to be waved through, or if some of their load will be taken," explains Pott. The aid organization has a commitment to ensure for all the goods to arrive. "If they have to give something away or pay at any of the 28 checkpoints, then it just reduces humanitarian aid to absurdity."

Bishops remain missing

Simone Pott, spokesperson for the German Welthungerhilfe (Photo: DW)

"Some residual risk remains," Welthungerhilfe spokesperson Simone Pott says

The Christian minority in Syria lives in constant fear. Since a bombing in Aleppo in February 2012, in which 28 Christians were killed, the number of attacks has been increasing. In October, a priest was scalped and then murdered; a few days ago another priest was beheaded. On April 22, Syrian-Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim, and the Greek-Orthodox bishop of the same city, Bulos Yazigi, disappeared. Bishop Ibrahim's deacon and his driver were killed. At the time of the incident, the clergy were in an region west of Aleppo, in an area controlled by the Free Syrian Army.

"The longer the archbishops remain missing, the more hopeless the future of Christians in Syria appears to be," says Danyel Demir, chairperson of the German-based Federation of Arameans - an organization representing Christians in Syria. The incident is embarrassing for the Syrian opposition, as they made counter assurances to respect and protect religious minorities. "In this case, the bishops were kidnapped 75 days ago and we have no reliable data on their condition, their whereabouts, or demands from the perpetrators." On Saturday (06.07.2013), the Federation of Syrians demonstrated in Frankfurt for the bishops' release.

Shrinking Christian minority

Around 10 percent of Syria's 20-million inhabitants are Christian. The largest group of them are Greek Orthodox, with close to 500,000 believers, followed by Catholics, with 420,000. Together, they make up the second largest Christian community in the Middle East - after the Copts in Egypt.

But the Christian's are politically divided - some support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, others the insurgency. "Being the only non-Muslim religious group, each conflict party suspects them to be in league with its respective opponent", writes the Scientific Service of the German parliament.

According to the association's president, Demir, the number of Christians could significantly decrease in the coming weeks and months. “Such brutal killings of Christians could leave a terrible mark on those remaining and drive them away,” he tells DW in an interview. “One thing we know for sure: these bishops are the reason that Christians have stayed in Syria.”

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