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Churches provide sanctuary after Turkey-Syria earthquake kills 5 thousand

by Heather Preston

Churches are stepping in to provide shelter and supplies after two huge earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria, leaving thousands dead.

The death toll has passed 5,000 and is expected to rise as hundreds of people remain trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

The World Health Organisation has declared that fatalities could reach tens of thousands in the coming days.

Turkey’s President Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency after the quakes hit the region on Monday, measuring 7.8 in Turkey and 7.5 in Syria on the Richter scale.

Ibrahim Najjar, from Christian charity Open Doors is currently in Aleppo, Syria. He told Premier what people are experiencing on the ground: "The situation, especially in the north is challenging. People are panicking, they have evacuated their houses, they are in the streets, kids, babies and elderly people. People are not able to go back to their houses because of cracks and damage and people are in real panic."

"I was at home and then the earthquake hit. It was horrifying, we felt that it was certain the ceiling would fall down and death was imminent at that point. We rushed out to the street and spent the who night on the street."

Najjar said many churches in the region have opened their doors to provide basic supplies, shelter and food for those who are struggling.

Martin Leach who is Tearfund’s regional lead for the Middle East told Premier freezing wintry conditions are making matters worse for rescue teams and victims of the quake.

"Buildings have collapsed, homes have collapsed, roads, infrastructure damage. And just remember this is right in the middle of winter, and winter is serious here, it is cold here, it is freezing, there is snow on the ground."

"So if you have to leave your building or home and go out into the street with no protection it is really bad. Many thousands of people have lost everything, loved ones, money, jobs.

In Syria, Orthodox Churches have been aiding the rescue effort as hospitals have reached maximum capacity.

"They have opened some of their churches as a shelter point, so people can come and be safe, be warm, get a hot meal and something to drink. And also they are looking at bringing some blankets and clothes so that people that have had to escape their homes have something to keep them going for the future," Leach said.

The shake has destroyed some 6,000 buildings, many with people still inside them. The Turkish government has deployed nearly 25,000 search and rescue personnel while countries around the world have pledged aid.

Leach explains that Aleppo is facing a "crisis on top of a crisis" as an already poverty stricken city, still reeling from the effects of war.

"Aleppo is a scene of destruction, much has not been rebuilt. Hospitals are destroyed, medical centres don't exist and many people have lost their jobs and are already people very vulnerable. So you have this crisis on top of a crisis.

"You've got poverty, you've got vulnerability, so if you layer on top of this so much destruction you've got much more problems for ordinary Syrian people."

In northern Syria churches, hospitals and convents have provided sanctuary for those who have lost their homes. Sister Anne Marie Gagnon, director of Aleppo’s St Louis’ Catholic Hospital, says families are turning to the Church as they have nowhere else to go.

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) she said: “People are now asking at the churches and convents, and with us at the hospital, if they can stay there until the crisis passes.

“Many buildings have fissures in them, and the people who are on the fourth or the fifth floor, are afraid to stay there.

“We have put some mattresses on the ground for our personnel so they can stay here.

“There are also some families who have asked to stay here overnight.

“We have operated just now on two people with injuries.

“We have a Christian family in the hospital whose family members have died in the earthquake. We are now awaiting the arrival of the priest who died, Father Daher.”

Father Emad Daher was one of two priests buried alive when a Melkite Greek-Catholic building collapsed.

UK aid charities have said that reports of the devastation are just the "tip of the iceberg", and are urging the public to donate, saying the help they are able to provide over the next few days "will save lives".


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