Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman heads the Eparchy of Latakia in the north of Syria, a region that so far has been spared the violence of the country’s civil war, which may come as a surprise to many in the West who imagine the entire country to be in the grip of violence. The territory is home to Alawite Muslims, who run the country, and who continue to live peacefully beside a Christian population of some 45,000.
Latakia and neighboring towns are a haven for Syrians fleeing the fighting, Muslims as well as Christians, the latter having fled Damascus, Aleppo and Homs (which is part of the Latakia Eparchy) in great numbers, the majority of them currently stranded in Lebanon.
Bishop Sleman is on a visit to the U.S. to rally support for his local community, not only to help him cope with the needs of the internally displaced — whose status, unlike that of refugees, make them ineligible for UN aid — but to give local Christians a chance to sustain a livelihood through farming. He is aiming to buy livestock and machinery for agricultural production, such as cheese-making.
“If Christians cannot make a living here, they will leave, and most of those who leave — particularly for the West — do not return,” the prelate said, adding that “their enduring presence here and throughout the Middle East is vital for the well-being of Muslim society,” serving as an indispensable antidote to fanaticism and extremism.