People walked past a damaged building depicting drawings alluding to COVID-19 encouraging people to stay at home in Idlib, Syria April, 18.
People walked past a damaged building depicting drawings alluding to COVID-19 encouraging people to stay at home in Idlib, Syria April, 18.
Photo Credit: Khalil Ashawi | Reuters

Advocates fear threats to religious freedom, health in northeast Syria

AMMAN, Jordan — Religious freedom advocates and medical practitioners have expressed concerns about the COVID-19 response in northeast Syria.

“There is a quadruple threat to religious freedom and the fight against ISIS that is going on there. Turkey has been relentlessly bombing and shutting off the water supply to the city (of Hassakeh). The U.N. and Human Rights Watch have spoken out about it, yet Turkey continues,” said Lauren Homer, an Anglican lawyer on international religious freedom issues, speaking to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable April 21.

Homer chairs the roundtable’s Middle East Working Group. She spoke during the group’s online meeting, which normally is held on Capitol Hill in Washington. Her remarks were made available to Catholic News Service and underscore concerns for the health and welfare of the region’s Kurdish, Syriac Christian and Yazidi residents facing the coronavirus crisis.

“There’s an impending COVID-19 crisis. The area is cut off by Syria’s Assad regime and Turkey from getting assistance. The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq) has tried to help, but you’ve got 5 million people with three test labs and a smattering of test kits, and that’s it. The U.S. government and our military have helped with suppling personal protection equipment. Samaritan’s Purse is there now providing assistance,” said Homer, who heads Law and Liberty Trust, which promotes religious liberty worldwide.

She urged the United States and President Donald Trump “to put pressure on Turkey to stop cutting off humanitarian aid and the water supply that is needed.”

On Feb. 26, Turkey imperiled the water supply to Hassakeh and its surrounding region of some half a million people, including Syrians internally displaced from other parts of the country because of the conflict.

Homer said: “The key thing about northeast Syria is that fight against ISIS is continuing, and ISIS is stepping it up.

“The best way we can advance both is to try to keep up the pressure on ISIS and try to keep people there healthy,” Homer said. “Because if COVID-19 sweeps through the area, we are not going to have any allies there to be our boots on the ground the way they have been.”

The international medical humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, is working with local health authorities and other groups in northeast Syria to prepare for an increase in patients infected with COVID-19, following the first confirmed death from the illness.

“We are deeply concerned about the lack of laboratory testing, the absence of contact tracing, inadequate hospital capacity to manage patients and limited availability of personal protection equipment,” said Crystal van Leeuwen, the group’s medical emergency manager for Syria. “The response in northeast Syria at this time is not nearly enough. A significant increase in assistance from health and humanitarian organizations, and donors are essential.”

Doctors Without Borders said nine years of conflict and military operations in northeast Syria have left the region with a broken health system. Many health facilities can no longer function, and those that remain open were already struggling to respond to the existing medical needs before the COVID-19 pandemic. Delays in testing and border closures have made it nearly impossible to adequately respond to a COVID-19 outbreak, it added.

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