Barnabas Edit: Any hope of return for Syria & Iraq’s Christians?

June 23, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Iraq, Syria, June 20, 2014: I recently returned from a short visit to Syria, where I had the great privilege of being able to worship with Syrian Christians at a special church event. Despite suffering the ravages and deprivation of war for over three years, there was a vibrancy, a hope and joy, which were almost tangible, in their praise.

christians in syriaAnd who could need hope and joy more than Syrian Christians in 2014? Their country was formerly stable and secure, a place of refuge for Christians fleeing anti-Christian violence in other countries of the region, a place where Christians were respected as equals by the Muslim majority in a way that is probably unique in the 21st century. But since 2010 at least 160,000 people have been killed in the civil war and some six or seven million people have left their homes and are either refugees in neighbouring countries or internally displaced within Syria. Amongst them are many Christians.

Islamist rebels have focused their violence especially on the Christians, their church buildingsand their church leaders. Where possible they have imposed sharia law locally. The inventive gruesomeness and cruelty of some of the killings seem deliberately designed to intimidate the Christian community. Lest there should be any doubt that Syria’s two million Christians are no longer wanted there, many have been offered a four-fold choice by the rebels: convert to Islam, pay the traditional  Islamic jizya tax (a sign of non-Muslim submission as second-class citizens), leave, or be killed. It is small wonder that hundreds of thousands have left their homes. Leaving their jobs behind them, they soon use up their savings, and become effectively destitute.

Even the Christian village of Maarat Saydnaya, which I visited, was safe only because its men set up check-points and defended it. Like all Christian communities, it was a rebel target. Just ten miles away lies the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, famous for the fact that its people have continued to speak a version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as their mother-tongue. Last year the village was attacked by Islamist rebels, and its churches and their holy items were deliberately desecrated. People were killed, nuns were kidnapped, and virtually the whole population fled.

Strife in SyriaI asked many of the Syrian Christians how they saw the future. Hoping against hope, some clung to the idea that things could return to how they had been. “When we go back,” said one couple from Aleppo several times as they described the plans they had for returning home from Lebanon and getting on with their lives again one day in Syria’s largest city. Yet Aleppo, which vies with Damascus for the title of the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, has been virtually destroyed by rebel mortars, and hundreds of thousands of its people, including many Christians, are living under medieval-style siege conditions, desperately short of food, water, fuel and everything needed for daily life. Hospitals and doctors have been particularly targeted. Over recent weeks, the Christian areas have been particularly heavily mortared, leading to increasing casualties. Out of a Christian population of over 400,000, there are now only about 150,000. Almost anyone who can escape has gone.

Homs’s old city has been one of the most sustained targets of the rebels, with nearly all the Christians being forced to flee, bar those who were held as a human shield. In recent weeks, because of a treaty between the rebels and government forces, over 7,000 Christian families returned to Homs.  Sadly, they have discovered that their homes have been looted and wrecked. They now find themselves homeless, penniless and without any means of surviving. Each day the Archbishop of Homs is providing a midday meal for them in a destroyed church building.

Unless God intervenes with a miracle in answer to His people’s prayers, I do not think thatSyria can ever return to how it was before the “Arab Spring”. When peace does eventually come, it can surely only be in the context of a new political settlement and the drawing of some new national boundaries. But where will the Christians be in this scenario? Although more numerous than the Druze, they are scattered across the country. There are concentrations of Christians in Aleppo, in Wadi al-Nasara (the Valley of the Christians) near to Homs, in Hassake and Qamishli on the Turkish border, and in the capital Damascus. Christians will have to live as a minority within each of the emerging new political entities.

Syrian Christians fear futureThe conflict in Syria is not just a civil war with two sides pitted against each other. Rather, it has become a complex sectarian and inter-communal, ethnic and ideological war, where the battle lines are constantly changing. There are Kurds in the north, al-Qaeda and Islamist rebels in the north and east, and Syrian government forces in the centre, south and coastal regions, and even within these areas conflict reigns. Internationally, there is little sign of a peace settlement. Militarily, government forces have not only held their own but are now re-taking territory. Al-Qaeda and the Islamists continue to control their areas and the moderate forces backed by the West are unable to make any progress. Nearby countries are also divided, with Saudi Arabia supporting the moderates, Qatar the Islamists, Turkey allowing all pro-rebel forces to cross its border into Syria, and Iraq, Iran and Hizbullah in Lebanonsupporting the Syrian government. A Shia-Sunni conflict is becoming increasingly intense and could lead to a regional war.

IraqThis has become an even greater threat with the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraqand the Levant (ISIS) in Iraq over the last week, and the subsequent call to arms by senior Shia clerics in the country, not to mention the possible intervention of Iran. ISIS now controls vast swathes of territory in western and central Iraq as well as eastern Syria, and the militants have literally bulldozed through a sand berm frontier on the border to unite their territory in the two countries.

They are imposing strict sharia rules in the areas under their control, including harsh penalties such as limb amputation and crucifixion for criminals, and demands that all women cover themselves up and leave their homes only if necessary.

As in Syria, it is the Christians who are most acutely affected by this crisis in Iraq. Christian villages around Mosul have been occupied and destroyed, churches looted and burned. Once again, Christians are being driven from their homes, and it is feared that this time, they may never be able to return. An upsurge in anti-Christian violence in Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion forced hundreds of thousands to flee the country. Soon there may be very few left.

Syria was previously a place of refuge for Iraqi Christians, but that is clearly not an option for them now. What has been happening in Syria over the last three or so years has many parallels with what happened in Iraq following the removal of Saddam Hussein, when Islamic militants were unleashed to wreak sectarian carnage, with the country’s minority Christian community being an easy and unprotected target.

Christians in the region are suffering intensely, and there is no end in sight. But their faith endures and where there is faith, there is hope. As an Arab Christian doctor said to me last year, “When I look at the situation now I am filled with despair, but when I look back at history with the eyes of faith and see how God has kept His Church despite the persecution, wars and violence, I have hope.”

– dr patrick sookhdeo

Enter Google AdSense Code Here

Comments are closed.