The forgotten tragedy of Syria’s Christians


British Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama last week made key statements at the UN about the conflict in Syria. They both spoke strongly against President Bashar al-Assad and condemned the atrocities committed by his troops, calling for regime change.

But there was no word about the grave abuses being committed by the opposition forces whom Britain, the US and other Western powers are supporting. Just over a week before Mr Cameron and Mr Obama addressed the UN, Human Rights Watch released a report that documented evidence of armed opposition groups in Syria subjecting detainees to ill-treatment and torture, and committing extrajudicial or summary executions.

Nor did the British and US premiers make any mention of the terrible plight of the Christian community in Syria, which has been deliberately targeted by the rebels from almost the very beginning of the 18-month uprising.

Barnabas Fund has been gathering information from trusted contacts on the ground in Syria and has decided to release some of this information so that the sufferings of Christians there can no longer be ignored by the international community. This report is by no means exhaustive; it is intended to illustrate something of the breadth and depth of the crisis that has engulfed Syria’s Christian community.

The country’s 2.3 million Christians have been well treated and enjoyed considerable freedoms under President Assad regime and are consequently assumed to be supporters of his government. Their vulnerability has intensified with growing numbers of Islamist militants joining the opposition campaign.

Christian areas have often been targeted by the rebels. In the early days of the uprising, from May to August 2011, young men travelled to the Christian neighbourhoods of al-Hamidya and Bustan al-Diwan in Homs from the surrounding Muslim areas after evening prayers to stage their demonstrations. The protestors increasingly carried weapons, instilling fear into the vulnerable Christian residents.

As Homs became a key battleground city towards the end of 2011, the Christian areas were surrounded and occupied by opposition fighters, who began to loot and take over the homes of Christians.

By April 2012, almost the entire Christian population of 50,000 to 60,000 had fled the city in search of safety.

In mid-August, opposition forces besieged the predominantly Christian village of Rableh, south west of Homs, blockading the 12,000 residents for two weeks. Three men who tried to escape were gunned down by snipers.

Rableh was liberated by the Syrian army on 25 August but its residents continue to be targeted by armed groups. Barnabas Aid received a report from a contact in Syria last week that said 200 Christians from Rableh had been kidnapped and the rest told to leave the village. After negotiations, 150 of the hostages were released but 50 were held. The kidnappers threatened to kill them unless the Christian villagers left.

Aleppo is now the key battleground in Syria and as the violence there rages on, at least one bomb has been dropped and numerous rockets fired in heavily populated Christian areas, claiming many lives.

Christian refugees who have fled the fighting there have reported that the rebels are shouting, “The Alawites to the graves and the Christians to Beirut”.

In addition to Christians being forced out of Homs, numerous villages have effectively been cleansed of Christians.

On 10 May, ten Christian families were expelled from Qastal al-Burg village, which is around 30 miles northwest of Hama. Armed militants seized control of the village and ordered the Christians to leave empty-handed. The militants took over their homes and occupied the village church, turning it into their command and control centre.

Thousands of Christians fled the city of Qusayr after being given an ultimatum to leave. Two Christian leaders, who were among those fleeing the city, said that they heard the following message from the minarets: “Christians must leave Qusayr within six days, ending Friday (8 June 2012).”

Christians from Qusayr later told a Barnabas Aid contact in Syria that the city had been cleansed of all Christians and that their houses had been occupied by the rebels, who had turned them into bases from which to attack the Syrian army.

Christians kidnapped and killed

Many Christians have been killed during the 18-month conflict in Syria. Some of these have been caught up in the general violence that has affected the entire Syrian population but others have been deliberately targeted.

The Christian community in Homs has been beset by kidnappings and killings. They were also blocked from leaving the besieged city in February 2012 by the rebels who kept them there as “human shields” in a bid to protect the areas they controlled from government troops.

In November 2011, a respected Christian figure reported that more than 140 Christians, whose names were provided by the Red Crescent, had been murdered in Homs.

On 7 August 2012, gunmen assassinated six Christian workers in Jander Resort, south of Homs.

At least 12 people, including five children, were killed and around 50 injured in a car bomb attack on a funeral procession in a mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Damascus on 28 August.

An unknown number of Christians have been kidnapped by the rebels, who subject them to torture and make high ransom demands for their return.

In March 2012, opposition fighters established random checkpoints at the junctions to the Christian and Alawite villages in Wadi al-Nasara in order to kidnap people. They executed some and demanded a ransom for the release of the others after brutally torturing them.

There have also been reports of sexual assault. In December 2011, a Christian man in his early thirties was stopped and sexually assaulted at an armed rebel group’s checkpoint in Homs.

On 17 April 2012, Christians from al-Hamidya reported that a group of militants kidnapped a Christian woman at 2am saying they needed to question her. They returned her four hours later, having raped her.

An evangelical church leader from the city of Idleb, near Aleppo, was subjected to a terrifying ordeal on 9 September 2012. He was travelling to a nearby village for Sunday worship when his car was stopped by an armed group comprising Wahabi Muslims who kidnapped him. They blindfolded the church leader, tied his hands and feet, and took him to an unknown location, where they held him in a small room. They beat him, causing him to pass out. When he awoke, they beat him again and interrogated him about his Christian ministry. The kidnappers accused him of being with the Assad regime and threatened to kill him. They beat him again until he passed out. He woke to find himself abandoned at the side of a road following a ten hour ordeal. He was left severely traumatised.

Destruction of churches and Christian property

Churches and other Christian-run buildings have been targeted by the opposition forces. To give but a few examples, the Ghassanid Greek Orthodox School in Bustan al-Diwan was occupied by the rebels on 2 February 2012. They smashed and torched furniture and computers, and destroyed all of the faculty and students’ documents.

In March 2012, the rebels occupied the evangelical school and the evangelical home for the elderly in Homs. The two buildings were then shelled by the army.

Christians in al-Hamidya, Homs, reported on 2 April 2012 that armed militants had detonated bombs in front of two churches with the aim of filming the explosions and using the footage to deceive people into believing that the Syrian army was shelling religious sites.

A man who went to visit his mother’s house in the same area on 1 May 2012 arrived to find that the building had been destroyed. He was told by other residents that rebels had planted bombs under the house and detonated them because it was located opposite a church. This had likewise been set up for propaganda purposes against the Syrian army.

A recently-built Armenian Orthodox orphanage in the Al Midan area of Aleppo has been severely damaged; the children and teenagers are being temporarily housed in a church hall.

Conclusion

If Britain, the US and other Western powers continue on their determined path behind the rebels in Syria, ignoring the atrocities being committed against Christians and other minorities, there could well be a repeat of what happened in Iraq following the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Church has been dramatically diminished in a concerted Islamist campaign to cleanse the country of Christians, and sectarian violence continues to tear the country apart.

Source:  Barnabas Aid

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