A Special Report by ICC
4/10/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Syrian Christians celebrated Easter under a cloud of uncertainty and the shadow of increasing persecution, forcing some of them to follow the lead of Iraqi Christians and flee their homes to seek refuge in other nations.
The Syrian Situation
Ghassaniyeh was once a Christian town on the edge of the Idlib province with 10,000 residents, all Catholics except six Muslim families. But today, after the raging civil war which followed a crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011, Ghassaniyeh is a ghost town, with no more than 15 of its residents left, according to Ma’an News.
Easter weekend is usually the year’s most festive for Syria’s Christians, but 88-year-old Giorgio – one of the last remaining Christians in the town – told AFP, “We weren’t able to celebrate either the Passion or the Crucifixion, we didn’t dare to leave our homes.” The roof of one of the three churches in the area, belonging to the Evangelical community, has been pierced by a rocket and the floors of buildings in the town have been reduced to rubble by successive air raids.
In the capital, Damascus, at St. Kyrillos Church, worshippers remembered the Resurrection of Christ with the sound of gunshots a few blocks away. Fighting between rebels and regime forces has engulfed districts on the outskirts of the city, in a civil war that has taken the lives of 70,000 people since 2011, according to the UN. In the western region of Homs, one of the areas worst affected by the Syrian conflict, a population of 60,000 Christians has reduced to 1,000.
Syria has one of the oldest Christian communities in the world and one of the largest in the Middle East – about 10 percent of the population. But since the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the resulting persecution, Christians have fled the country to seek refuge in other nations.
As Aidan Clay, ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, says, “Syria’s Christians and their places of worship have been increasingly targeted by terrorist attacks since the outbreak of civil war, similar to what was seen in Iraq’s war which resulted in more than half the Christian population leaving the country following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. There is fear that if the country’s anti-Christian violence progresses, Syria’s faithful may be the next ancient Christian community to permanently leave the Middle East.”
Lamenting the dwindling Christian population in Syria, Bashar Ilias, a theological student and social worker who distributes church donations to people displaced by the fighting, told the New York Times, “Either everything will be O.K. in one year, or there will be no Christians here. The Christians in Syria are the only ones left in the region. If they leave, Christianity will lose its roots.”
The Iraqi Situation
The Syrian exodus resembles the situation in Iraq, following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Before the invasion, Iraq’s Christian population was believed to have topped one million and dropped to as much as half that number following retaliatory attacks on Christian neighborhoods and churches.
Today, there are reportedly fewer than 60 churches left in the country, where the World Evangelical Alliance warns that churches are being destroyed and Christians are being killed, tortured, used as human shields, and raped. There are reports of people in green or black headbands beating up Christians and destroying their property, while threatening similar actions to any Christians who do not leave the country.
More than 1,000 Christians have been killed in the past 10 years and 60 churches have been attacked since Saddam Hussein was brought down, according to Louis Raphael Sako, leader of the Chaldean Catholic church, the largest of the Christian denominations in Iraq and Syria.
In the worst of the attacks, in 2010, a group affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for gunmen and suicide bombers, who stormed Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic church and killed 58 people, including priests. The church has reopened but is now hidden behind high concrete walls, guarded by soldiers, and closed to all but regular parishioners, according to The Christian Science Monitor. The increasing attacks on Christians, along with fragile security, prompted a Christian exodus similar to the one being witnessed in Syria today.
In an interview, Sako urged Iraqi Christians to remain in their homes, saying “We must stay. This is our history. This is our patrimony. When we leave, everything will leave with us. Other Iraqis are also persecuted, not only Christians, so there is a solidarity among us...They have to stay to struggle with the others.”
The Future of Christians in the Middle East
As Sunni Muslims rebel against Assad’s regime in Syria, Christians and religious minorities have turned into targets for Islamic extremists among the rebels, who are trying to make the most of a tense situation, some even calling for an Islamic state. Meanwhile, Christians have no friend in the region, with rebels seeing them as Assad loyalists and the government unwilling to trust them. On Jan. 6, President Assad blamed the conflict on enemies outside Syria, but remained open to a political solution – something that is urgently needed before the very existence of the Syrian church becomes a thing of the past.