Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Syrians Flee War, Find Warmth

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Syrians Flee War, Find Warmth

Article excerpt

Gibrial Makdes is among the newcomers who crowd the pews at St. Mark's Syrian Orthodox Cathedral in Teaneck.

Makdes, who lives in Mahwah, came to the United States just a month ago, fleeing his native Syria. Back home, in a nation divided by a bloody civil war, his two brothers were kidnapped by a Chechen faction, he said. They were held at gunpoint for a week until their family paid a ransom.

Another church member, Dr. Elias Joseph Malke of Wyckoff, immigrated to New Jersey 16 months ago. Malke said he made the move after he learned that there had been an attempt to kidnap him.

"I left my office, my house, everything," the physician said. "I have some assets in the bank [there]; I can't move them now."

St. Mark's -- packed on Sunday as usual -- has outgrown its space off Cedar Lane as North Jersey's population of Middle Eastern Christians increases.

To accommodate its growing membership, the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese that covers the Eastern United States has big expansion plans. The archdiocese's headquarters, now adjacent to St. Mark's, will be moving to a 5.27-acre site on West Midland Avenue in Paramus that also will contain a cathedral to replace the one in Teaneck, and a community center.

The strife in Syria has led an estimated 2 million residents to seek refuge, many of them Christians who fear what would happen if Islamist extremists gained control of their country from President Bashar Assad. Some of these Syrians have fled to United Nations refugee camps. And some hope to eventually gain entry to the United States.

"We expect more to come as Christians are being driven out of the Middle East," Syriac Orthodox Church Archbishop Cyril Aphrem Karim said. "We have to prepare for that."

The $14 million project is expected to take three to four years, with the first phase under way. A 100-year-old brown sandstone building, formerly owned by the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, has been gutted and is being power-washed in preparation for its renovation.

The five-story, 42,256-squre-foot building, formerly known as Mount St. Andrew's Sanitarium and House of Divine Providence for the Aged, will be converted into the new center of the eastern archdiocese, as well as Karim's residence.

The Syriac Church bought the site for $5 million in 2007. It expects the renovation of Mount St. Andrew's to be done by the end of 2014, Karim said.

The renovations include revamping the building's two-story, 100- seat chapel, as well as its kitchen and dining hall. A library, museum, study and conference rooms also are in the plans, as well as rooms for visiting clergy and other guests, including Syrian emigrants.

"It's very crucial to us to see what we can salvage in regards to our heritage and with regards to our culture through that center," said Elias Sarkar of Moonachie, who is president of the archdiocese's executive council. …

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