Barnabas charts plight of Christians in Syria on timeline

December 21, 2012 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Syria, December 20, 2012: As the crisis in Syria appears to be reaching a critical phase, Barnabas Fund has charted the suffering of the Christian community in a categorised timeline to show how targeted violence against them has intensified. Will the international community take note of their plight before it is too late?

Our timeline, which begins in April 2011 as violent “Arab Spring” protests were spreading through the country, has been compiled using a combination of media reports and first-hand information from our contacts in Syria. To protect our sources, we have not been able to name many of the victims.

The timeline reveals how anti-Christian hostility has become more and more brazen as the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad has gained strength, with Islamist jihadi groups playing an increasingly influential role among the rebels.

In the early days of the unrest, Christians, who have been well treated under President Assad and are therefore more inclined to support his regime, came under pressure to join the uprising. Demonstrations in Homs, which was to become a key battleground, were staged in Christian areas to intimidate the Christian residents, while elsewhere, in Hala, Christians were given an ultimatum either to join the protests or to leave.

It was not long before intimidation turned into violent attacks. The Christian community in Homs was beset by a spate of kidnappings and killings. In November 2011, a respected Christian figure reported that more than 140 Christians in the city had been murdered. The violence has continued unabated and spread to other parts of the country. The Christian death toll from Homs has risen to around 300 while in Aleppo, over 130 Christians have been killed.

CHRISTIANS FORCED OUT

St Mary’s Church in Homes before the war

St Mary’s Church in Homes before the war

As the battle for Homs intensified, Christian homes were invaded and seized by the rebels, and Christian families were forced out. By spring 2012, Homs had been almost emptied of its Christian population; fewer than 1,000 remained from the original 50-60,000. Now, just 80 or so remain. One of our partners in Syria said that they are being kept there by the opposition as “human shields” to deter government troops from heavily shelling the area.

The Christians, who are extremely weak and malnourished, were threatened by a Salafi group, “If you leave we kill you, if you stay with us you live.”

Our partners, who have been trying to rescue the Christians, said:

Some people are so tired and sick they do not want to leave their homes. They say, ‘We will die here.’

 

St Mary’s Church in Homs now

St Mary’s Church in Homs now

Homs has become a very conservative Islamic city; stones were thrown at Christian girls because they were not wearing the veil.

Christians have been forced out of several other places also. In May 2012, the ten Christian families of Qastal al-Burg village were ordered to leave as militants took over their homes and occupied the village church, turning it into their command control centre.

The following month, Christians were given an ultimatum to leave Qusayr; two Christian leaders heard the threat coming from the minarets.

In August, the predominantly Christian town of Rableh was blockaded for two weeks. Three men who tried to escape were shot dead. Christians in Rableh were targeted again in September; 200 were held hostage by armed gangs, who, after releasing 150 of their hostages, threatened to kill the remaining 50 unless the Christian inhabitants left.

CHRISTIAN AREAS TARGETED

As the conflict has moved to Aleppo and Damascus, Christian areas of these cities have been targeted; churches and other Christian-owned buildings have been particularly vulnerable as visible symbols of the Christian presence.

The deliberate and systematic destruction of churches has sent a clear message to Christians in Syria. One church leader from Aleppo said:

An opposition fighter mocks Christians in a sinister pose

An opposition fighter mocks Christians in a sinister pose

When you lose your church building it is something important. And when you lose a very historical church building because they meant to destroy it … this is a very clear message from ‘them’ to ‘us’ Christians in the East.

Bombs have increasingly been used to unleash carnage on the Christian community; they are also an indication of the growing military power of the opposition, which is being supplied with arms by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Jaramana, a mainly Christian and Druze suburb of Damascus, has been hit by a number of deadly bombings.

IS THE END NIGH?

Observers are predicting the approaching collapse of the Assad regime, with the struggle for Damascus being critical to the outcome of the conflict.

The opposition National Coalition has now been recognised by 130 nations as the legitimate government of Syria and seems likely to shape the country’s future. If they do succeed in ousting President Assad, it will be in large part due to the role of jihadi groups; the al-Nusra Front (Jadhat al-Nusra) is considered to be the most effective fighting force among the Syrian opposition and will consequently be a key stake-holder in the new order.

Where does this leave the country’s Christians?

They fear that a sectarian war could be the next step, intensifying the danger for their community, followed by an Islamist regime that would seek to eradicate Christianity from Syria.

Thousands are leaving the country but most, having been impoverished by the war, are trapped, without the resources to escape.

One senior Christian leader from Homs told Barnabas Fund:

We feel no one cares about us. The media does not show what happens to Christians. We have no hope for the future now. Our Christian area and our churches are destroyed. For Christians all is lost.

But despite the bleak outlook, there is determination to maintain a Christian witness in Syria. A senior Christian leader from Aleppo said:

We have to stay here. It is our vocation to give our testimony. We had a lot of persecution in the past and we have to find a way to continue.

In its support for the Syrian opposition, the international community must also “find a way” to safeguard the continuity of the Syrian Church. It must not be allowed to go the same way as its counterpart in Iraq, which has been in seemingly terminal decline since the US invasion of 2003.

– barnabas edit

 

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