Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why Christians have much to fear in Syria

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A commander of the Ghurabaa al-Sham  brigade  earlier this year in front of a church shelled by mortars, at Judeida, one  of the first  Christian  villages to be taken by the rebel Syrian army.

HUSSEIN MALLA / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

A commander of the Ghurabaa al-Sham brigade earlier this year in front of a church shelled by mortars, at Judeida, one of the first Christian villages to be taken by the rebel Syrian army.

Christians have been part of what is today Syria since the first century. In fact, it was in the ancient Syrian town of Antioch that followers of Jesus were first labelled Christians. Today, of the country's 22 million population, approximately 10 per cent are Christians. Most belong to three streams of Christianity, the Syrian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church.

However, Syria's Christians now find themselves in a very conflicted situation. Many have been supporters of the Assad government which, despite its repressive reputation, offered protection to Christians that Islamist governments are not inclined to give. For that reason, many Christians who fled Iraq during the Iraq war went to Syria. In turn, an estimated 500,000 of Syria's some two million Christians have fled their homeland because of the civil war.

Christian communities in the Middle East find themselves in a very difficult situation these days. For one, the Christian population generally has declined dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century. Then about 25 per cent of the population of the Middle East was Christian, today it is closer to five per cent.

This has been the result of events such as the killing of the Armenian Christians and pressures on Christian groups in countries across the region. But a good deal was brought on by the actions of western nations. After the U.S.-led Iraq War, of the 3.5 million Iraqis forced from their homes, a quarter were Christians, though they made up only three to four per cent of Iraq's population. Something similar is likely to happen in Syria.

In Egypt, in August, the day that the Egyptian military cracked down on the pro-Morsi supporters may have been the worst single day of violence against the Egyptian Church since the 14th century, according to Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. On Aug. 14, 60 churches throughout Egypt were destroyed, along with 11 schools, an orphanage, a hospital and two Bible Society bookshops, as well as many homes and businesses, the Barnabas Fund reported.

Quite simply, much of it happened because of the connection that pro-Morsi supporters made between Coptic Christians and the West, even though in Egypt too the church has been present since the first century.

This linkage, then, appears to be a factor in making the situation of Christians in Syria so difficult. But Christians also find themselves caught between Syria's Sunni majority and the Alawite minority who have political control. "Today, Christians are targeted by both government and rebel forces," says Cesar Chelala, a Middle East Times correspondent.

The Syrian opposition generally assumes that Christians are supportive to President Assad, though there are Christians on both sides of the conflict. The head of the Syrian National Council, for example, George Sabra, who recently travelled Canada, is a Christian, as are other prominent dissidents.

Christians throughout the country participated in the early demonstrations against the Assad government, according to a recent report from Open Doors International.

That report says that one of the main features of Syria's Christian population is its mix of ethnic and Christian identities. Ethnically, most would be Armenians, Syriacs or Arameans, and religiously, be found in one of the three streams noted earlier. More importantly, the Christian communities tend to be concentrated in all the areas of the country that are strategic to both the government and the opposition groups, areas such as Aleppo, Damascus and Homs. That's why tens of thousands have fled, becoming either internally displaced or refugees outside the country.

Syrian Christians are afraid of the Islamizing of the opposition and of its increasingly jihadist character, the Open Doors' report says. The result has been that their communities too have gradually been "militarizing," as they are drawn into Assad's National Defense Army. The report adds that even though some Christians have taken prominent roles in the opposition Syrian National Council, "the Christian community inside the country would have no tangible benefit in vocally calling for the removal of the Assad government and will not likely do so in the near future."

The report's assessment is that Christians face a grim future in Syria. If the country is to reach a more just future, a process must be found that recognizes the concerns on all sides in the conflict. The Assad government has much blood on its hands (as the use of chemical and napalm bombs testifies), but so do the jihadist fighters who have streamed in from all over.

For the Americans to attempt to work a solution by lobbing missiles into the country is a bankrupt response.

All the major players, Russia and the Arab League included, need to be invited to a peace table without pre-conditions except the desire to achieve a peaceful and just resolution, an approach that American Secretary of State John Kerry signalled early in his mandate he wanted.

 

Harold Jantz is a retired editor and Christian journalist.

 

Also go to wfp.to/comment to read The plight -- and peril -- of displaced Syrians

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 16, 2013 A11

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