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The Tragedy of Syria's Besieged Christians

Lela Gilbert

The present bloodshed in Syria began in 2010, during the early days of the so-called Arab Spring. At first, the anti-regime protests appeared to be another series of “peaceful” demonstrations defying yet another despotic regime. The “rebels” – first identified as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and claiming to be mostly secular and pro-democracy, seemed to be offering a positive alternative to President Bashar Assad’s iron-fisted, pro-Iran regime.

But today, more than three years later, that early protest has exploded into a ferocious civil war. Sunni warriors, many of them affiliated with al-Qaeda, have swept across the Syria-Turkey border, overpowering more moderate forces. Today they are waging jihad against Assad’s army, which is in turn heavily supported by Iran’s Lebanon-based Shiite proxy, Hezbollah.

News reports have become more and more appalling: Chemical weapons have killed thousands. “Barrel bombs,” designed both to murder and to mutilate, have left hundreds of civilians dead or surviving minus limbs, or blinded and disfigured. Children are being both starved and targeting by gunmen.

Recent reports from Israeli doctors – who have quietly and heroically treated more than 1,000 wounded Syrians – claim that snipers are intentionally striking children in the spinal cord, aiming to cripple, and shooting pregnant women in the abdomen, intentionally murdering their unborn babies. The U.N. has stopped trying to accurately update the civil war’s death toll, which is estimated at more than 150,000.

At the outset of the conflict, Syria’s ancient Christian community appeared only to be caught in the crossfire. For decades, they had been protected by Assad’s regime as a minority, and thus were assumed to be aligned with his forces. But more recently, Christians have been specifically targeted – not only identified as Assad supporters, but looked upon by radical jihadis as “infidels.”

Untold numbers have fled, and many are struggling to survive in primitive refugee camps. The most fortunate have made their way into nearby countries or, when possible, the West.

Meanwhile thousands of Syrian Christians are barricaded in life-and-death circumstances. And faced with ever-increasing violence, those believers remaining in Syria’s ancient and historical Christian community are gradually being decimated.

One Christian village, Ma’alula, has become emblematic of the abuses suffered by Syria’s Christians. Ma’alula has received special attention in the West (where very little has been reported about the Syrian Christians’ struggles) because the scenic community — a popular tourist site — is on a list of candidates for UNESCO World Heritage site designation. The Christian population still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

In September 2013, a source inside Syria reported to Nina Shea at Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom about the dire circumstances in Ma’alula:

“More than 30 Christians are missing, 6 have been killed, we have the names of 3 of them. The Mor Serkis monastery has been bombed, but we don’t know about the damage. Most of the residents fled to Damascus, those who have not been able to get out of their houses because of ongoing fights between opposition groups and Syrian military, remained in Ma’alula. The Jabhat al Nusra, Free Syrian Army and the Syrian army occupied Ma’alula.”

That same month, AFP reported a heartbreaking story: a young Ma’alula woman could not find her fiancé after a rebel attack on her village. She tried calling his cellphone.

“Good morning, Rashrush,” a voice answered, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiancé was a member of the shabiha [pro-regime militia]? We have slit his throat.”

The woman was told that her fiancé, Atef, had been given the option of converting to Islam with a knife to his throat. He had refused.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” the killer told her, mocking the couple’s Christian faith.

The village of Ma’alula changed hands periodically that fall. Then on December 2013, the Guardian reported, Opposition fighters have abducted 12 nuns…Febronia Nabhan, Mother Superior at Saidnaya Convent, said that the nuns and three other women had been seized from another convent in the predominantly Christian village of Ma’alula and taken to the nearby town of Yabroud on Monday.

On the same day, Syrian rebels had captured large parts of Ma’alula, around 40 miles north-east of the capital, after three days of fighting.

Naturally, there was great fear for the safety of the nuns, particularly because stories of Christian massacres were being reported in other parts of Syria, and allegedly, beheadings of Christians had appeared on YouTube.

Why were Christians being targeted for such cruel abuse? In my book Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner, I describe the expulsion of 850,000 Jews who fled or were forced to leave nearly a dozen Muslim countries in the mid 20th century. Now there are less than 5000 Jews in most of those countries combined.

Today, it is the Christians’ turn to suffer the same fate. In September 2013’s National Review Online, I wrote, The Islamist motto, “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians” — or, more tactfully, “First the Saturday People, then the Sunday People” — isn’t just a slogan. It’s a formula for religious cleansing, pronounced by radical leaders and enacted by jihadi warriors.

Today, nearly all the Saturday people are gone from the countries that were their homelands for centuries, even millennia.

And, today, the Christians — the Sunday people — are paying a terrible price for their faith. Particularly in Egypt and in Syria, where virtually no Jews remain, stories of assaults on Christian homes and businesses; wanton destruction of churches; the disappearance, rape, and murder of women; mob-driven atrocities against women, men, and children; and the murder of priests and pastors are reported nearly every day.”

At first it was reported that much of the abuse of Christians was imposed by al-Qaeda affiliated jihadis who stormed into Syria in hopes of overthrowing Assad. However, it was later rumored that some of the attacks were at the hand of the more moderate rebel forces. Were they, too, killing or otherwise forcing Christians off their property and seizing it for their own use? It also was reported that some factions were attacking children in order to drive the parents away. Meanwhile, in the town of Sadad, north of Damascus, some 40 Christians were massacred, allegedly by Al-Qaeda.

Syriac Orthodox archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh’s appeal was poignant: “We have shouted to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers? I think of all those who are suffering today in mourning and discomfort: We ask everyone to pray for us.”

It is puzzling that western voices, and particularly Christian ones, are so silent in the face of such horrifying circumstances. Is it because the Christian churches in the East – Assyriac, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, Maronite – are unfamiliar to Western Evangelicals, and difficult to understand or identify with? Possibly so, but it is also true that much of the scattered reporting on these issues fails to reach the mainstream media outlets in the US and Canada. Only Fox News seems to have actively pursued stories of Christian persecution.

And perhaps the impotence of western nations also contributes to the media’s seeming disinterest. Zvi Bar’el wrote in Haaretz, “Western countries are not capable of doing much to protect Christian minorities in Iraq or Syria because the degree of their influence on those countries is very limited….in Syria, protection of Christians – in areas controlled by the Syrian army – is a low priority.”

The situation for Christians has far from improved in early 2014. If anything it has worsened. In late February, a terrorist group known as ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – besieged the Christian community in Raqqa, a city in Northern Syria. The assailants offered the Christians three options: Convert. Submit to Islam. Or face the sword.

The Christians chose to spare their temporal lives, protect their eternal lives, and sign an agreement on February 27. As I reported on Fox News, “Faced with losing their lives or denying their Christian faith, the community opted for dhimmi status – suppression as a ‘protected’ minority – which requires them to submit to an array of demands, including the notorious jizya tax, which can be compared to Mafiosi protection money: purchasing their safety, but under strictly enforced regulations.”

So today, Raqqa’s Christians are subject to an extreme version of Islamic Sharia law, which among other things forbids them to repair their battered churches, ring church bells, or wear crosses or other symbols of their faith. Women must wear the veil, and cigarette smoking is forbidden. Nina Shea writes, “They are forbidden from reading scripture indoors loud enough for Muslims outside to hear, and the practice of their faith must be confined within the walls of their remaining churches, not exercised publicly (at, for example, funeral or wedding processions),” She characterized the requirements as returning to rules attributed to the 7th Century caliphate.

In fact, subjection of Christians and Jews to dhimmitude has a long and humiliating history in the Middle East and throughout the greater Muslim world. Although it officially ended after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, dhimmitude’s harsh, unequivocal demands and imposed inferiority remain intact even now in the behavior patterns of communities that suffered under it. Even when free from formal enforcement, Christians and Jews sometimes still respond with fear and acquiescence to Muslim intimidation; in various ways dhimmitude is still enforced de facto in some modern Muslim states.

There has been one item of good news in recent weeks. Israel’s Ynet announced on March 11 that the 12 nuns and three other women kidnapped four months before in Ma’alula had been released to the Syrian government. The women appeared to be in good health and claimed that they had been treated well – although one of their number was too weak to walk to the vehicle that transported them.

But it would seem that any religious or ideological motive for their abduction paled into insignificance upon the news that they had been ransomed by the Syrian government for $4 million. Nonetheless, in the spirit of Assad’s generosity, even Hezbollah offered jubilant congratulations, saying “On this happy occasion Hezbollah congratulates the released nuns, the Orthodox Church, the Syrian leadership, and the Syrian and Lebanese people.”

A more sober assessment was made in Al-Arabiya, whose general manager Abdulrahman al-Rashed deplored the applause and described the entire operation as nothing short of a crime.

“They… broke into the building at night and kidnapped the head nun and a number of nuns who were working at the monastery and an associated orphanage. After several Syrian factions denounced the crime, the al-Nusra Front and pro-Nusra media outlets claimed that the fighters took the women in order to protect them. But from whom? No one answered and the news of the nuns disappeared as many went on wondering. In recent days, it became clear that it was a blackmail for money operation that has nothing to do with the regime or with the revolution.”

The nuns’ story – despite its more or less happy ending – embodies the dangerously volatile layers of politics, religion, violence, crime and deceit that engulf the Syrian civil war and all the innocent people – including innumerable Christians – who are caught in its inhumane violence.

Meanwhile, in mid-March, the Armenian Christian town of Kessab in Northern Syria was attacked by al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists and 2500+ residents had to flee for their lives. Turkish forces were accused of turning a blind eye to the attackers as the jihadis swarmed across the nearby border. Kessab’s three churches were desecrated; much of the town was damaged or destroyed.

It is difficult to know how to help Syria’s Christians since it is virtually impossible to travel there in hopes of providing any kind of assistance. Pressuring western governments for their protection is worthwhile in principle, as is providing aid for the Christian refugees who are living in limbo along Syria’s borders. Our prayers certainly need to continue.

Meanwhile, our eyes need to remain open to the realities of our troubled world. We should be alert to the explosive and deadly scenarios that continue to threaten our Israeli allies. And we need to keep ourselves particularly informed about injustices that endanger the lives of our Christian brothers and sisters in today’s broken Middle East.

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