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Syria’s Christians Frightened as Conflict Turns Overtly Sectarian

12/23/2012 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – A U.N.-appointed panel now agrees with what Syria’s Christians have been warning since the beginning of the conflict – that the civil war is split along ethnic and religious lines, which reinforces the fear that fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime might jeopardize their security.

“As battles between government forces and anti-government armed groups approach the end of their second year, the conflict has become overtly sectarian in nature,” the U.N.-appointed panel led by Brazilian expert Paulo Pinheiro said.

While al-Assad is supported by Iran as well as Lebanon’s Hezbollah among other Shi’a groups, the opposition movement is backed by Saudi Arabia and dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Arab nationalists.

“Foreign fighters,” Sunnis from the Middle East and North Africa, are slipping into Syria to fight forces of al-Assad, who is from the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot, and being protected by the Lebanese Shi'ite Hezbollah, the panel found. “What we found in the last few months is that the minorities that tried to stay away from the conflict have begun arming themselves to protect themselves,” Karen Abuzayd, a panel member, said at a news conference in Brussels.

Roughly 10 percent of the 23 million Syrians are Christian, and another 10 percent are Alawite. Another 10 percent are non-Arab ethnic Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslim. The remaining 70 percent are Sunni Muslims.

Al-Assad had been autocratic, but he gave considerable religious freedom to the people. But deepening of the sectarian divide is not only weakening prospects for post-conflict reconciliation, but has also led to targeting of Christians and other minorities by extremist Islamist elements of the opposition.

BBC recently reported that Christian families are fleeing the violence and chaos of Syria's civil war and arriving in the Lebanese city of Zahle in the Bekaa valley, where Christian aid agencies care for them.

 

Earlier, reports indicated that the opposition Free Syrian Army – a paramilitary composed of defected Syrian Armed Forces personnel and run by the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC) – and its successors have intentionally targeted Christian groups and areas, and the entire city of Homs was evacuated by the tens of thousands of Christians as a result of the conflict.

It is common knowledge in Syria that the SNC has fighters from the al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group that the U.S. State Department has designated as a terrorist organization.

“Syria does not need foreign jihadis and radical Islamists – it has more than enough of the home-grown variety,” Mideast scholar Glenn E. Robinson recently wrote on the Foreign Policy magazine website. “The most powerful elements of Syria's armed opposition would almost certainly be no friend of liberal democracy were they to seize power for themselves,” he said.

Christians and other minorities want stability within al-Assad’s regime until there’s a safer alternative. Their fears are also based on what they have seen happening in Iraq and Egypt, where large numbers of Christians had to flee after the fall of their respective regimes.

The United States is relying on the Islamist government of Turkey, which is helping the Syrian opposition to fight al-Assad – this makes Christians even more worried about their future.

Aidan Clay, International Christian Concern’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, has said the Islamist agenda of the Free Syrian Army is a cause for grave concern, as they and other rebel forces "are increasingly targeting the Christian community."

The U.S. government should help protect Syrian Christians and other groups and become more involved in Syria, where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians according to the Bible. “To stand by and do nothing is not an option. The future of Syria’s ancient Christian community is at stake.”

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