(newjersey.com) - Gibrial Makdes is among the newcomers who now 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, a nation divided by a bloody civil war, his two brothers were kidnapped by a Chechen faction. They were held at gunpoint for a week until their family paid a ransom for their release.
Another church member. Dr. Elias Joseph Malke of Wyckoff, immigrated to New Jersey 16 months ago. Malke made the move after he learned that there had been a botched kidnap attempt on him.
“I left my office, my house, everything,” the physician said. “I have some assets in the bank [in Syria], 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 has increased.
To accommodate its growing membership, the Syriac Orthodox archdiocese that covers the Eastern United States and St. Mark’s have 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 will also include a community center and a cathedral with a 44-foot-high dome.
The strife and chaos in Syria has sent an estimated 2 million of its residents to seek refuge, including Christians who fear what will happen if Islamist extremists gain 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 entrée 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 to complete, 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 now 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 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 will also be created, as well as rooms for visiting clergy and other guests — including immigrants from Syria — to stay.
“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, a Moonachie resident who is president of the archdiocese’s executive council.
The Syriac Church, which bought the Paramus site for $5 million in 2007, expects the renovation of Mount St. Andrew’s to be done by the end of 2014, Karim said.
The second phase is scheduled to start next summer, when the foundation is laid for a multi-purpose community hall adjacent to the existing building. The final stage is construction of a 450- to 500-seat cathedral that will replace the current one in Teaneck, which seats roughly 350 people.
The Syriac Church plans to sell the Teaneck cathedral building and use those proceeds to help pay for the new one, the archbishop said. So far about half of the money has been raised, said Burhan Coban, a Franklin Lakes resident who is president of St. Mark’s.
St. Mark’s has about 350 families, a number that continues to increase. Paramus attorney Samir Khalaf, a member of the Teaneck church, said its growth is partly because of immigration over the years and partly because of the recent war in Syria.
“Across the board the Middle East is losing a lot of its Christian population and a lot are in fact coming here, Khalaf said.”
The Syriac Church, which conducts its services in the ancient language that Jesus Christ spoke, includes not only Syrians but also those from Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and India. In North Jersey there is already an established Arab and Syrian population that can sponsor relatives so they can get out of the Mideast.
The number of Syrians and Turks in North Jersey has steadily risen. For example, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 12,624 people of Syrian descent in New Jersey, with 2,568 in Bergen County and 3,698 in Passaic County. By 2012, those numbers had risen to 15,858 Syrians in New Jersey, with 2,992 in Bergen and 4,842 in Passaic County.
During his sermon on Sunday, Karim referred to the bloodshed and strife in Syria, talking about two archbishops who were kidnapped in April.
“Our people are being killed because of their faith and therefore are becoming martyrs,” Karim said.
Malke is from Aleppo, which he said has been under siege for more than six months.
“Now it’s like hell: no fuel; no heat; no electricity; no water,” he said. “Mortars, missiles are targeting the Christian neighborhoods every day, every day.”
Malke was lucky in that he had a tourist visa and relatives in North Jersey to sponsor him so he could come to America.
The Syriac archdiocese made its plans to move to Paramus before the civil war was raging in Syria, a fortuitous decision and “blessed” timing, Sarkar said.
“Purchasing that property when we did, we had no clue how things were going to unravel [in Syria],” he said. “There’s more cause than ever to build and provide.”
The archdiocese and St. Mark’s will continue to assist the new immigrants, offering financial assistance and helping them find housing and employment, Sarkar said.
“We do what churches do: Offer help,” he said.