Islamism, kidnappings & future for Syria’s Christians

April 26, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-world

Many Christian buildings in Syria have been badly damaged or destroyedSyria, April 25, 2013: Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, reflects on the prospects for Syrian Christians as their country continues to be torn apart by civil war.As Syria’s Christians reel under ever-increasing pressure from Islamist militants, the kidnapping of two senior church leaders has vividly underlined their perilous position. Their future, within Syriaor even in neighbouring countries, appears increasingly bleak.

The two archbishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boutros Yazigi, had been on a humanitarian mission in the north of the country, trying to secure the release of two pastors who were kidnapped some months ago. They were seized on 22 April in the village of Kfar Dael on the road to Aleppo. Their car was intercepted and their driver shot dead in cold blood.

The identity of the attackers is still uncertain, although one report identified them as Chechens. Christians are often kidnapped for ransom in the lawless and chaotic conditions now prevailing inSyria, but so far these kidnappers have demanded only the release of other rebel fighters.

Ibrahim and Yazigi are the most senior leaders to be taken captive since the conflict began more than two years ago. Ibrahim has spoken out several times about the desperate plight of Christians in Aleppo; only two months ago he issued a statement saying poignantly, “We cry loudly, ‘Enough is enough; we are totally exhausted and cannot continue.’”

CONVERT, LEAVE OR DIE

This disturbing incident presages the inescapably grim future for Christians in the event of a militant Islamist takeover of Syria. Numerous jihadi groups are now operating in the country as part of the opposition coalition against President Assad. They espouse an ideology that includes elements of Wahhabism (the highly conservative form of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia) and Salafism (a radical movement that seeks to restore the supposed golden age of Islam).

The prospect of these groups seizing power in Syria is a forbidding one for Christians. The choices before them are likely to be threefold: either convert to Islam, leave the country, or die. And the third option is far more than an empty threat. The Islamists have both the will and the power violently to persecute those they regard as the enemies of Islam.

It is hard enough for Syrian Christians merely to be caught up in the disintegration of their society. Law and order has largely broken down with the authority of the government, and rival armed militias roam the cities, at war with each other. Buildings have been destroyed, and food, medicine and fuel are in short supply. Numbers of casualties are estimated at around 350,000, including 60,000 dead; approximately four million people are internally displaced and around a million are refugees in other countries.

Many Christians also find themselves in the wrong geographical place in the country. Around a million of them live in Wadi al-Ouyoun and Wadi al-Nasara, two valleys that separate the Alawite supporters of Assad from the majority Sunni population that largely favours the opposition. The area is of such vital strategic importance to both sides that experts even suggest that whoever controls these Christian areas can control the course of the war.

But in addition to enduring these acute hardships and dangers, Christians are being explicitly targeted, especially by the Islamist groups. The incidence of kidnapping has increased so much that some Christians think it unsafe even to leave their own neighbourhoods. Others have seen their property stolen or suffered other forms of violence, including torture or even murder. A new practice known as takbir involves claiming ownership of anything by touching it and saying three times “Allahu Akbar [Allah is great].” This is used by Muslims to take possession of cars, houses, buildings or anything else. They also use it to take possession of Christian women, believing they then have the right to rape them. Churches are empty and services suspended. Almost the entire Christian population of some cities has fled, and even some senior leaders have now been forced reluctantly to take refuge abroad.

If Islamists do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry? What will happen to Syria’s Christians if the militants can exercise their power completely unchecked?

NOWHERE TO HIDE

Displaced Christians in Syria who receive emergency relief from Barnabas FundThe range of available alternative options is equally unattractive. Although Christians are widely believed by the Syrian opposition to be supporters of Assad, because they have been generally well treated under his regime, many do not want to identify themselves too closely with his politically repressive rule or his crackdown on protest. But while those who back him risk persecution by Islamists and other opposition fighters, those who try to stay neutral are in danger from government security agents. Whichever way Christians turn, they are ground inexorably between opposite forces.

Those who flee abroad, to neighbouring countries or further afield, also face grievous problems.Jordan and Lebanon are both under pressure: their economies are strained as a result of the long conflict in Syria, and both have seen unrest of their own. Elsewhere Christian refugees have been subjected to robbery and ill-treatment, or are forced to live in squalor; some refugee camps are unsafe for them because of the risk of abuse at the hands of extremist Muslims. Many would like to get to Europe but are thwarted by difficult visa application procedures.

WHERE NOW FOR SYRIA’S CHRISTIANS?

The torment of Syria’s Christians recalls that of their brothers and sisters in Iraq ten years ago, as anarchy engulfed the country following the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Christians were given the same three options, to convert to Islam, leave the country or die. Often this message was sent to individuals, by telephone, text message or letter, and was reinforced by kidnappings, murders and the bombing of church buildings.

Now once again a Christian minority numbering around a million and a half and dating back to the first Christian centuries is in danger of extinction through targeted persecution and large-scale flight. So is there any earthly hope for them?

The country of Syria is being progressively destroyed, and there is currently little prospect of a peaceful solution or of a decisive victory for either side. The war seems to be a fight to the death – not of the participants, but of the nation and its churches. I am myself convinced that the long-term healing of Syria’s divisions lies in a confessional state on the model of Lebanon, where minorities – both ethnic and religious – are protected and guaranteed a stake in the country’s governance, and this proposal is now receiving serious consideration at the UN.

Let us pray that it may bear fruit before the destruction of Syria’s Christian community is past the point of no return.

– dr patrick sookhdeo

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