The forgotten tragedy of Syria’s Christians; World leaders ignore their plight

October 10, 2012 by  
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Syria, October 4, 2012 : 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 Syriaand 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.

– barnabas team

Indian sisters pray and fast for peace, war victims, in Syria

September 29, 2012 by  
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Indian sisters pray and fast for peace, war victims, in SyriaMumbai, September 28, 2012: The Pious Disciples of the Divine Master in Bandra (Mumbai) pray for their brothers and sisters in Syria, that they may enjoy lasting peace. Founded in the spirit of Saint Paul, who met Jesus on his way to Damascus, the congregation “holds Syria in a special place.”

“We are praying for the victims of the terrible killings in Syria and for the whole country, that lasting peace may reign where Christ appeared to Saint Paul,” said the Pious Disciples of the Divine Master (PDDM), as they launched a day of prayer and fasting for the victims of the Syrian war at their Prathnalaya or House of Prayer.

“We are devastated by Syria’s terrible situation,” Sister Valeriana told AsiaNews. For the mother superior of the congregation, “yesterday’s reports have increased our sense of desperation. We pray incessantly.”

“Our congregation was created by the Blessed Giacomo Alberione, in the spirit of Saint Paul who med the Divine Master on his way to Damascus. This,” she insisted, “unites us intimately to this land, which today is a place of death and destruction for many innocent people.”

“The Blessed Giacomo Alberione said that we must all consider Saint Paul the Apostle, as our father, master, example and founder,” Sister Valeriana explained.

“Our congregation was born from him and has been nourished and risen in him. We received our spirit from him. If someone suffers in the mystic body of Christ, we suffer too. Syria and Damascus hold a special place for us.”

Fr Giacomo Alberione, founder of the Pauline Family, set up the congregation in 1924.

The pope established the feast day of Jesus the Divine Master in 1958 following a request from the founder of the congregation.

– asianews

Syria’s 2.3 million Christians in refugee crisis; will Europe help them?

September 17, 2012 by  
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A destroyed church building in Homs, Syria

A destroyed church building in Homs, Syria

Syria, September 13, 2012: The conflict in Syria has precipitated a major refugee crisis on the EU’s doorstep: endangered Christians are resorting to desperate means of escaping their war-torn country, putting themselves into the hands of human traffickers to get to safety. Will EU countries open their borders to help them?

There are 2.3 million Christians in Syria, and many of them want to leave as conditions in the country deteriorate and threats against them intensify. Essentials such as water, food, electricity and petrol are in short supply, and Christians are increasingly being targeted by the opposition forces, who perceive them as being pro-Assad.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled to neighbouring Lebanon, but as the conflict between supporters and opponents of President Assad spills over that border, alternative places of refuge are being sought.

Hundreds of Christian families have gone to Greece, putting themselves into the hands of human traffickers and enduring treacherous journeys to get there via Turkey. All borders intoTurkey are now controlled by the Free Syrian Army, who do not permit Christians to cross; they are told:

You are with Assad. You can stay here and be killed with him.

The Syrians are ultimately trying to get to another European country, chiefly Sweden or Germany, where many have relatives. The traffickers are exploiting their desperation, demanding thousands of Euros – typically €4,000 for adults, €2,000 for children – for the onward journey.

Some Christian refugees have almost died en route to Greece. One 30-year-old man was transported along with 22 other people in an inflatable boat designed for only six to eight people. It almost collapsed and sank twice.

Another Christian man, aged 27, ran into a sewerage piping system filled with waste in a bid to escape the Turkish police, who subsequently caught and beat him. He eventually made it to Greece, on a dangerous boat trip during which the inadequate vessel capsized. In Greece, he has been beaten up by a group of attackers who are believed to belong to a political party that is extremely hostile to foreigners and immigrants.

Some of the Christian refugees have sold all their possessions to pay the traffickers. Others who cannot afford the fee are attempting to walk, such is their determination to escape Syria.

One desperate father, who managed to get his family of ten to Greece, is now planning to send his 18-year-old daughter, daughter-in-law and grandchild with traffickers to another European country. He is extremely concerned about what may happen to his loved ones, and fears that they could even be sold into the sex trade, but feels he has no other choice.

The Christians do not feel safe in Greece and cannot afford to live there with its crippled economy and high prices.

The World Council of Arameans (WCA), which has been monitoring the movement of Syrian Christians, said:

Many of them left Syria because they felt threatened and intimidated, they did not wish to fight in this war and others fled from the fear of a bleak future. What is clear is that the hell which they felt in Syria is now somewhat mirrored in the Diaspora… Many stay in dismal and depressing situations, afraid to leave their new homes, hoping not to be robbed, arrested or forced back to Syria.

The plight of 2.3 million Christians in Syria can no longer be ignored by the international community. And as the US, UK and other Western powers increase their support for the Syrian opposition, it is imperative that they consider the implications of this for the country’s Christians. If the Assad regime falls, it seems likely that Christians will be facing a similar scenario to that of their counterparts in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein. Islamist militants there made it very clear that Christians were not welcome, subjecting their communities to relentless violence; hundreds of thousands of Christians have consequently been forced to flee.

Where are 2.3 million Syrian Christians going to go? With many surrounding nations in a state of instability, not to mention overtly Islamist, Syrian Christians are praying that EU countries open their borders to receive them. The WCA is also calling for the provision of humanitarian aid and legal assistance for Syrian Christian refugees arriving in Greece.

– barnabas team

In Christ’s Passion, redemption of the suffering of Pakistani Christians *Syria: Easter cancelled in Homs after churches bombed

April 10, 2012 by  
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Pakistan, April 07, 2012: All over the country the minority participated in Holy Week religious functions, the Way of the Cross yesterday. Bishop of Islamabad: look to the Cross on Calvary as the place for relief from suffering. Throughout Lent, the faithful promoted charitable activities and Bible study.

In Christ’s sufferings of the Passion and death on the Cross, Christians in Pakistan and around the world find an answer to the suffering and violence of every day, the bishop of Islamabad / Rawalpindi Mgr. Rufin Anthony tells AsiaNews, on Good Friday which precedes the Easter of Resurrection. The local minority is the victim of persecution and targeted attacks, which are the cause of death and marginalization. However, in the difficulties experienced by Jesus in the last hours of his life Christians can find the strength to overcome their suffering. This is why all the parishes and churches in the country promoted a three-hour adoration and prayer, with readings, passages from the Bible, sermons and hymns, then – in the afternoon – the Way of the Cross.

The Bishop of Islamabad recalls that the two most important moments of Christian faith are “Christmas and Easter, celebrating the birth and resurrection of the Messiah […] who died and rose again to give us eternal life.” Msgr. Anthony explains that Christ was a master of “tolerance, forgiveness, peace, and now it is up to us to continue his work.” The prelate added that Easter is an “opportunity to work together with other communities and promote religious harmony.” In the drama of the Passion on Good Friday, he concludes, we see the suffering taking place in the world and that “where else to look there best, if not to the Cross [of Christ] on Calvary.”

The Holy Week celebrations were attended by many faithful in every city of Pakistan. Each parish sponsored meetings, meditations, Masses and prayers. Saqib Masih, a Christian from Lahore, said he had fasted for the whole of Lent and Good Friday, giving up “everything that was not necessary.”

Sadia John, from Islamabad, said that in a time of penance and Lent, the Christian community has sponsored retreats, spiritual exercises, listening to the liturgy and activities of charitable and missionary animation. “I myself gave birth to a project – he tells AsiaNews – to ensure the schooling of children of the slums, without charge, during Lent. The project will continue in the future.”

– asianews

Syria: Easter cancelled in Homs after churches bombed


Syria, April 10, 2012: For the first time in centuries no services were held to mark the festival of Easter in Christian churches of war-torn Homs as the Syria government inflicted a heavy bombardment in defiance of UN-brokered ceasefire talks.

Plans for a negotiated end to fighting appeared on the verge collapse yesterday amid widespread violence and a new unilateral demand from the government for “written guarantees” from its opponents to lay down weapons.

The three principal churches for Christian denominations in the city, which until a few months ago was home to Syria’s third largest Christian community, were virtually abandoned. Other small churches have been destroyed as private homes became the places of worship on Sunday with priests and locals gathering in secret.

All are located in districts have been left devastated by weeks of heavy shelling.

“There is no celebration. For one week, there have been no sounds coming from the churches or the mosques,” said Saleem, a resident speaking from his home in Homs Old City, where most of the churches are located.

“Government forces have shelled the area this morning. It is too dangerous to go outside”.

Homs at Easter used to be a tapestry of colourful parades, said Dima Moussa, a member of the Syrian National Council who recalled years of festive visits to her family in Homs as a young woman.

“You could feel Easter across the whole city. Everybody would put on their best clothes, a the children would parade around their church playing instruments,” said Dima. “We painted boiled eggs and brought them to Church to be blessed.”

“It is a family occasion. Everyone would visit their relatives, bringing with them colourful eggs and chocolate for the children. My grandparents would put on huge meals, often a whole sheep, for the whole family”.

Two weeks ago Moussa’s relatives fled from Homs as government forces began shelling the Christian neighbourhoods of Hamidiyah and Boustan al-Diwan where they lived. Videos of the area show streets riddled with debris, and concrete buildings shattered by shells and bullet holes.

“The windows of my grandfather’s home were shattered by shelling,” said Moussa. “The regime doesn’t care anymore, they are targeting all neighbourhoods, and mosques and churches.”

“It is too dangerous to go to Church, as the regime is even shelling these,” said Saif al Arab, an activist in Homs who claimed to be in contact with Christians in his neighbourhood. “There is not enough food for them to celebrate in the traditional way. This is not a celebration, they gathered to pray for the people who have been killed in the bombardments”.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI implored Damascus to heed international demands to end the bloodshed. He said: “Particularly in Syria, may there be an end to bloodshed and an immediate commitment to the path of respect, dialogue and reconciliation, as called for by the international community.”

– telegraph

Another Pak Christian woman battles *Lebanese-Syrian border humanitarian crisis

April 2, 2012 by  
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Hanifan Bibi, Pakistani ChristianPakistan, March 31, 2012: Hanifan Bibi was segregated at home by her husband who converted to Islam following an extramarital affair with a Muslim woman. He wanted to take the house bought with money earned by his wife. The intervention of NCJP activists has helped justice prevail. Now the court will assess civil damages.

She fought a tough battle against her husband, who wanted to drive her from the house she built over time thanks to the hard earned money of her own work, while the man – converted to Islam in November 2011 – spent his time on women and drinking. Hanifan Bibi’s tenacity and the support of NCJP activists have allowed the woman to get justice in court so she can remain in her home with her children, pending the decision of the civil court in Faisalabad, which is to assess the instance of separation and alimony.

This is the story of suffering, abuse and oppression that emerges from the story of Hanifan Bibi (pictured), a 37 year old Christian, mother of two children, born and raised in a poor family of Gurala Dajkot, a district of Faisalabad (Punjab). For years her husband was abused her, leaving her alone at home with their children to waste his wife’s hard earned money on drinking, women and partying. And when he returned, for short periods, the situation certainly did not not improve, because he beat her brutally.

However, the reality came crashing down four months ago when her husband Sarwar Masih decided to convert to Islam, taking the name of Muhammad Sarwar, following an extramarital affair that had been going on for some time with a Muslim woman, Nasreen Bibi. “Since I have not decided to change faith like him – Hanifan tells AsiaNews – he segregated me in the house” and by March 10 she found herself a prisoner in her own home.

Muhammad Sarwar, after locking up his wife, denounced her illegal possession of the house. With the collaboration of a group of Muslim families he filed a lawsuit in court and threatened the woman if she resisted.

Speaking to AsiaNews, local Christians and Muslims confirm that the man is a “despicable person who does not deserves trust,” because he “engaged in dishonest behavior” and never wanted to work and help support the family. Instead he treated Hanifan like a maid, to “bring home money to feed the families” and ensure a decent life to their children.

Having learned of the issue, the activists of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Church in Faisalabad intervened in defense of women. They obtained the dismissal of Harifan’s trial, while judges have opened a civil case against the man for the separation and compensation. “I continue to receive threats from my ex-husband and his fellow Muslims,” Hanifan Bibi, tells AsiaNews, but she remains steadfast in her faith and intention to see her rights recognized.

– asianews

Humanitarian crisis worsening on the Lebanese-Syrian border


Syria-Lebanon, March 29, 2012: Caritas Lebanon chief says actual refugee numbers higher than official figures. Caritas and other international organisations could run out of supplies. Cor Unum announces fundraiser during Holy Thursday Mass in Rome’s St John Lateran Cathedral.

“The situation is getting worse by the day. The number of refugees is rising constantly. At present, there are more than 20,000 of them; some sources say 30,000 people have crossed the border into Lebanon,” said Caritas Lebanon chief Fr Simon Faddoul.

Speaking to AsiaNews, he explained that most refugees refuse to give their names fearing retaliation back home. It is thus difficult to have accurate numbers. The figure of 9,000 used by the United Nations and the international community to determine the amount of aid is just an estimate and does not correspond to the reality of the situation.

“Refugees have come especially from Homs and surrounding villages, where the worst cases are found: divided families, orphans, old people, sick or those wounded during the bombing,” Fr Faddoul explained. “However, some people have fled other districts like Jableh, in northern Syria, hundreds of kilometers from the Lebanese border.”

“Those who still have money try to cross the border with their cars, using it to pay off security forces and rent a place in Lebanon. Our motorways have been filled with cars with Syrian license plate, especially from Damascus and Alep, for the past few days.”

For the priest, an immediate ceasefire is needed to allow humanitarian aid into Syria to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe.

Through Caritas, the Lebanese Catholic Church has collected food, blankets and clothes in parishes at home and abroad for about 2,000 families.

“In recent months, international organisations have joined the effort and set up sites for refugees,” Fr Faddoul said. “However, it is not enough. We are going to launch a new appeal a few days from now asking for more humanitarian aid. It will be read in all the churches of the world.”

Yesterday, the papal charity Cor Unum announced that funds raised during Holy Thursday Mass in St John Lateran in Rome would be devolved to Syrian refugees.

“This is a great gesture on Benedict XVI’s part,” Fr Faddoul said. “It shows that the Church is close to the people of Syria. The amount of money is not important. The initiative is especially important as spiritual support for Catholic volunteers who are moved to donate everything to all these people.” (S.C.)

– asianews

Syria: Growing Islamist influence; Christians vulnerable *Bombed Iraqi church reopens, but…

March 30, 2012 by  
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Syria, March 28, 2012: The uprising in Syria is taking on an increasingly Islamist character as al-Qaeda militants infiltrate the country, rebel bands declare “jihad” and the Muslim Brotherhood gains political strength.

The opposition to President Assad comprises disparate groups with varying agendas, but, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamists are now becoming prominent in Syria. Their influence is coming from both inside and outside the country, and while some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are pursuing a political agenda, others, including al-Qaeda, are using terrorist tactics.

US officials have warned that al-Qaeda militants from Iraq are infiltrating Syria; recent suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo have borne the hallmark of the group. Worryingly, Christian neighbourhoods have been targeted in a number of the blasts.

Al-Qaeda supporters are largely Sunni Muslims extremists; Sunnis are the majority group in Syria and central to the opposition. The regime is dominated by the minority Shiite Alawite sect and closely allied with Shiite Iran.

Call for Jihad

Some rebel bands are using the language of jihad and urging others to join them in a holy war. A spokesman for the “god is great” Brigade said on the Internet:

To our fellow revolutionaries, don’t be afraid to declare jihad in the path of god. Seek victory from the one god. God is the greatest champion. Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for god.

Influential Muslim clerics have been calling on Syrians to bring down President Assad. One Syrian Salafi cleric, Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, who is based in the Gulf, regularly delivers provocative speeches broadcast on Saudi TV channels calling for jihad against the “infidel” Assad regime.   

And Safwat Hejazi, a prominent Muslim cleric in Egypt, told a rally in Cairo in support of the uprising that it was the duty of every Muslim to kill the Syrian president.

Political sway

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged from the Egyptian revolution as the biggest political winner, is gathering strength in Syria. Their dominance in the Syrian National Council, the body that is establishing itself as the opposition’s political leadership, has provoked several prominent figures to quit.

One of them, Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident, said that the council was “a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood” and that the Islamist group was trying to build allegiances on the ground in Syria. He and others say that the Brotherhood is distributing money and weapons in its bid to win support.

President Assad and his father before him kept a tight leash on the Brotherhood; membership of the group has been punishable by death.

Christians vulnerable

The increasing influence of Islamists in Syria is extremely concerning for the country’s sizeable Christian minority, who, before the revolution, enjoyed considerable freedom and peace. As perceived supporters of the government, they have already been suffering grave abuses at the hands of the opposition.

The Christian community in Homs has been the worst affected. They have been subject to kidnappings, gruesomely brutal murders, and severe damage to their homes. Last week, anti-government forces there occupied the evangelical school and the evangelical home for the elderly. In response the army shelled both buildings. Despite several direct hits on the home, only one person was killed. The anti-government forces fled and the army then moved in to clear the landmines planted at the school by the rebels, as well as advancing on two other Christian neighbourhoods. 

One senior Christian leader in Aleppo expressed his fear that as the insurgency becomes increasingly militant, the terrorism may be geared in part “toward the non-partisan, defenceless and easily victimised Christian communities”.

– barnabas team

Bombed Iraqi church reopens. Anti-Christian attacks continue


Iraq, March 27, 2012: Beleaguered Iraqi Christians gathered for “a moment of real celebration” as a church that was bombed over six years ago was officially reopened.

The church in Kirkuk has now been fully restored after the car bomb attack on 29 January 2006, in which a 13-year-old Christian boy, Fadi Raad Elias, was killed. The teenager had stopped at the church on his way home from school to pray and thank Jesus for good school grades.

Last week, at the official reopening, the building was packed with Christians and church leaders from other parishes for what one believer described as “a moment of real celebration”.

Archbishop Louis Sako paid tribute to the young “martyr”, Fadi, and said that such bloodshed was “an invitation to persevere” despite the “challenges” that the Christian community continues to face. He called for Christians not to leave Iraq, but to stay and witness for Christ.

The attack on the church in 2006 was part of a coordinated series of bombings, timed to coincide with the end of Sunday services. Another church in Kirkuk was targeted, plus two in Baghdad.

The reopening celebration was but a brief respite in the ongoing suffering of Iraq’s Christian community, signalled by two further attacks last week.

On Thursday (22), the body of Salman Dawoud Salman (45) was found riddled with bullets in Mosul. He had been shot nine times at close range. The freelance photographer had been kidnapped four days earlier. Iraqi Christians are often targeted by kidnappers for ransom.       

A church in Baghdad was hit last Tuesday (20) in a series of over 20 bomb attacks across the country. Two guards were killed and five people wounded when a bomb exploded near the church. The attacks were carried out by extremists to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.

– barnabas team

Christians in Syria need your help today *Islamists destroy some 30 Buddhist statues

February 17, 2012 by  
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Syrian Christian FamilySyria, February 16, 2012: Barnabas Fund is today launching a crisis appeal for Christians in Syria who are hungry and helpless amid the brutal fighting between government troops and rebels.

The key battleground of Homs is encircled by fighters from both sides, leaving the Christians there and in the surrounding villages – approximately 100,000 – in the firing line, many of them trapped in the city.

Barnabas Fund is providing urgent help
for Christians in Syria
First orphans and now whole families are being evacuated, and are in desperate need of food and basics. Prices have rocketed, supplies are running low, and it is often too dangerous to go out in search of food. Even in some parts of the country not directly affected by violence, there is inflation of 30-50%, while in Homs itself some prices have tripled.

More than 200 Christians have been killed, and the community has been beset by a series of kidnappings. The rebels make high ransom demands for the return of the captives, but in two known cases the victims’ bodies were found after the money had been paid. Some families are now becoming so desperate that they tell the kidnappers to kill their loved one immediately rather than subjecting them to torture.     

Barnabas Fund is one of the very few Christian aid agencies helping Christians in Syria at this tumultuous time. We are working directly with Christian partners in the country to get urgent supplies to needy families.

There are two million Christians in Syria, around ten per cent of the population. Among them are thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees who have been forced from their homeland by anti-Christian violence and persecution, and are already in desperate need.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, said:

I have just returned from the Middle East, where I met with many Syrian pastors and church leaders. Our brothers and sisters in Syria are in a desperate state, facing the daily struggle of trying to get enough food to feed their families while war rages all around them. And they are also understandably anxious about how this conflict is going to end and what that will mean for their future in the country. Please keep them in your prayers and give whatever you can to help alleviate their distress.
Please Pray

* For peace and stability to be restored in Syria.
* For all those who have lost loved ones in the violence, that they will be comforted in their grief.
* For the Christian community, that the Lord will be their rock, fortress and deliverer (Psalm 18:2), and that He will meet all their needs.  

– barnabas team

Islamists destroy some 30 Buddhist statues


Turkey IslamismMaldives, February 15, 2012: Some of the artwork dates back to the 6th century and were part of the country’s pre-Islamic past. The attackers are still at large. The incident is similar to the destruction by the Taliban in 2001 of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan. Fears are growing that the archipelago might see further Islamic radicalisation. After Islamists stormed into the Maldives National Museum and destroyed almost 30 Buddhist statues on 7 February, police has not yet discovered the attackers. A six-faced tantric Buddhist statue from the 9thcentury and the so-called Thoddoo head, a 50cm coral stone representation of the Buddha’s head found on Thoddoo Island in the 1950s dating back to the 6th century, were among the objects destroyed.

“The collection was totally, totally smashed,” Ali Waheed, the director of the National Museum, said. “The whole pre-Islamic history is gone,” he lamented.

In the past month, the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, has been experiencing social and political turmoil, fuelled by radical Islamist groups, which culminated in the resignation on 7 February of Mohamed Nasheed, the country’s first democratically elected president.

The museum attack 7 is reminiscent of the Taliban’s demolition of the great Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in early 2001.

Deemed a tourist paradise, the archipelago does not tolerate freedom of religion. Sunni Islam is the state religion.

A constitutional amendment in 2008 banned non-Muslims from holding Maldivian citizenship.

Alcoholic beverages and pork products are also banned, except at the international airport and in tourist resorts not employing Maldivian citizens.

“Idols” from other religions cannot be brought into the country as well.

For some observers, the vandals who attacked the National Museum saw the Buddha artwork as idols.

– asianews/agencies

50 Christians killed amid Syria unrest. *Islamist “Religious Police” threaten civil liberties in Tunisia

December 15, 2011 by  
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Syria Food ParcelsSyria, December 14, 2011: Around 50 Christians have been killed in the anti-government unrest in Homs, Syria, by both rebels and government forces, while many more are struggling to feed their families as the violence brings normal life in the city to a halt.

In one tragic incident, a young Christian boy was killed by the rebels, who filmed the murder and then claimed that government forces had committed the act. Another Christian was seized by the rebels, taken to a house and asked, “How do you want to die?” The man completely broke down and was released but has been left in severe psychological distress.

Many Christian families have fled Homs because of the violence between government troops and the rebels, which has claimed around 1,500 lives in the city. They have left behind their homes, possessions and jobs, so are now struggling to find the means to feed their families. Some of those who are staying in the city are too afraid to leave their homes to go to work, so they too are in great financial hardship. Few dare to go out after 3pm or on Fridays, when the streets are most dangerous.

A Christian leader in Homs said that the Christian areas of the city are surrounded by rebels. They sometimes try to “disappear” into Christian neighborhoods, which are generally expected to be peaceful, but they are hunted down there by the army, and violence ensues.

Barnabas director meets Christians in Syria

Barnabas International Director, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, returned earlier this month from a visit to Syria. He met with senior Syrian church leaders, who expressed the concerns of the country’s Christians about the ongoing unrest.

Christians comprise a significant proportion of the Syrian population, around ten per cent (two million); this includes thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees who have been forced from their homeland by anti-Christian violence and persecution.

The Syrian regime may not function according to Western standards, but it has afforded the Christian community equality and religious freedom; Syria is one of the few Arab lands where Christians have enjoyed respect and been allowed to live peacefully among their Muslim neighbours.

But the current crisis has destabilised that harmony as Christians are perceived as supporters of the Assad government, having been well treated under his regime. And, as in other countries affected by the “Arab Spring”, radical Islamists in Syria – with backing from Saudi Arabia – have seized the opportunity created by the unrest to pursue their agenda, increasing the danger for Christians.

Christians fear repeat of Iraq

Christians fear that their precarious position will only worsen as the international community intensifies pressure on the Syrian government and appears to be moving towards military intervention. Weapons and militants from outside are already coming into the country, strengthening the rebels’ campaign.

A senior Syrian church leader has written:

The people of Syria do not want the international powers to interfere in their lives and so divide the country as they did in Iraq. Any such hidden agenda of the superpowers will mean the end of Christianity in the Middle East. Simply look at what happened to the Christians of Iraq after the war began there… A great number of them had no choice but to leave the country forever, and those who stayed remain marginalised to this day. Not to forget that many of them were persecuted and their churches bombed. Accordingly, Christians in Syria are very suspicious of the interference of the superpowers, because their destiny stands to be no different than that of their Iraqi brothers and sisters.

Western and Arab media have presented a distorted picture of the unrest in Syria. The undeniable atrocities being committed by the government have been well documented, but equally despicable acts by the rebels do not make the headlines. And while some reports suggest that the country is in a state of civil war, in reality the conflict is at present mainly concentrated in Homs. Such one-sided reporting is fuelling international pressure against the government.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas said:

The tragedy facing Syria, especially the Christian community and other minorities, is potentially another Iraq. It is now recognised that the war in Iraq was not only misguided but also illegal, with devastating consequences for the peoples of Iraq, especially the Christians. This must not be allowed to happen again. Christians must now pray for peace and stability, but also urge their governments not to engage in actions in Syria without considering the consequences.

Christians in Syria, including Iraqi refugees, are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance as sanctions and the unrest are beginning to cripple the country’s economy. People who have lost jobs and homes are coming to the churches asking for food.

Please Pray

1) For all those in Syria who have lost loved ones or are suffering hardship as a result of the unrest.
2) That peace will quickly be re-established and that the international community will carefully consider the effects on the Syrian population of any Aeconomic and military actions.
3) For the Christians in Syria, that the Lord will protect His Church there and maintain for Himself a strong witness in that land.

Islamist “Religious Police” Threaten Civil Liberties in Tunisia


Tunisian ConstitueTunisia, December 14, 2011: An unofficial “committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” has been launched in Tunisia as the country moves in an increasingly Islamist direction.

The newly-formed organisation, which is supported by Salafist groups, does not have government recognition, but no action has been taken to stop its activities.
The committee has taken it upon themselves to see that Islamic virtues are upheld in public life: they are aggressive towards women who do not abide by their code of dress, and they make their presence felt at mosques and Quranic schools, where they are trying to impose imams with Salafist views.

In one case, they objected to the new female director of a religious radio station taking up her post. Professor Ikbal Gharbi had been appointed to the position by the government; it seems the committee were opposed to a woman being in charge of a religious radio station, and especially one with a reformist and modernist interpretation of the Quran.

The formation of the committee has sparked fears among many liberal and secular Tunisians about the risk it poses to civil liberties.
Highlighting the example of Saudi Arabia, where official religious police strictly enforce sharia law, one Tunisian commentator said, “Is this the fate of Tunisia? Is this post-revolutionaryTunisia?”

Hichem Meddeb, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said that no request had been received for official recognition of the committee and that no authorisation would be granted. The government has not, however, taken any action against them.

Increasing Islamism

Since the Islamist Ennahda party emerged with the largest share of the vote in the Tunisian elections in October, there have been growing concerns that the country – long-recognised as one of the most Westernised, secular and liberal Arab nations – will move in an increasingly Islamic direction.

The party’s deputy leader Hamadi Jebali is the new Tunisian Prime Minister. He raised alarm among some observers when he referred to the country’s future as a “Caliphate” – a historic form of Islamic government based on sharia. Ennahda issued a quick retraction, saying Jebali was quoted out of context and insisted that the party was committed to republican principles.

Some of those who protested back in January for a more secular, liberal Tunisia feel that the revolution has been hijacked.
One such demonstrator, Maryam Hamim (20), said:

The Islamists didn’t go out with us on January 14th but then they took the revolution for themselves

-barnabas team