Moved by Faith: Christian Organizations and Humanitarian Aid in Syria

By Hélène Rey
Submitted to Session P4980 (Humanitarianism and the Syrian Crisis, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Conflict Resolution; Current Events; Human Rights; Minorities;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
The place of faith-based organizations (FBOs) in the humanitarian field is a question that has generated some debate in recent years. On the one hand, it is feared that FBOs, by their very nature, stand in contradiction with the core humanitarian principle of impartiality, according to which aid must be distributed on the basis of need alone, not group affiliation. On the other, FBOs might be able to mobilize human and logistical resources faster and more efficiently than other organizations thanks to local coreligionists and pre-existent institutional networks.

Building on the nascent theoretical literature on FBOs and humanitarianism, this paper aims to push this discussion forward empirically by assessing the work of Christian FBOs in the current humanitarian crisis in Syria. Given the intensity of the crisis, the logistical challenges associated with a civil war and the manipulation of sectarian narratives by many actors in the conflict, Syria presents a particularly interesting environment for such a study. Statements and publications from the organizations themselves, their partners, their volunteers and church institutions, complemented with interviews, are used to map networks of affiliation and cooperation between FBOs but also with other organizations, identify the relief programs put in place, their mechanisms and challenges, as well as ideological underpinnings.

On the basis of this analysis, this paper argues that some FBOs do have a particular ability to create and reinforce embeddedness within the local social matrix, which gives them unique access to hard-to-reach populations and make them essential partners for other humanitarian organizations. Further, this embeddedness can also inspire them to focus more on long-term solutions, which, thanks to in-depth local knowledge, can be better tailored to regional realities. A major challenge for Christian-based organizations is certainly the tendency to associate any Christian groups with the regime of Bashar al-Asad, an association which can hinder their work. However, this challenge has prompted some local FBOs to put greater emphasis on impartiality, thus circumventing one of the main issues associated with FBOs and humanitarian work. Impartiality does remain problematic among some international FBOs.

This paper thus also brings evidence to support calls for greater “localization” of humanitarian aid and fewer remote-management techniques. Finally, by giving center stage to Christian organizations, it strives to counter the tendency to see Christians in the Middle East, due to their minority status, as a purely marginal element without agency, either victimized or co-opted by others.