Religion Unplugged

Ancient Christian Communities Caught In Syria’s Crossfire Need Shelter This Winter

Adjunct Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
Convent of Saint Takla and the Maaloula town of Damascus after Syria rebels withdraw from ancient Christian town and the regime forces retrieval on April 20, 2014.
Convent of Saint Takla and the Maaloula town of Damascus after Syria rebels withdraw from ancient Christian town and the regime forces retrieval on April 20, 2014.

On Monday Oct. 7, many Americans were stunned by a news story: President Donald Trump abruptly announced – in a series of tweets – that U.S. troops would immediately be withdrawn from northern Syria.

This sudden decision meant removing U.S. military units based along a swathe of land which has served as a buffer zone between Turkey and Syrian Kurds. The pronouncement seemed erratic and was particularly disturbing to many U.S. military personnel. They had battled alongside heroic Kurdish warriors, who had sacrificed some 11,000 of their fellow soldiers during joint military efforts combatting ISIS.

Turkey intends to relocate 2-3 million Syrian refugees – presently living in Turkey – across that strip of land. That means, of course, that the present residents, whom Erdogan claims are largely Kurdish “terrorists” affiliated with his arch-enemy, the PKK, will have to find new places to live, far removed from the Turkish border. The Turkish agenda is to cleanse the strip of land of its Kurdish, Yazidi and Arab residents.

However, in that same zone resides one of the oldest Christian communities in the world: Syriac Christians. Those historic believers first settled into the region’s towns and villages while 1st century churches were only beginning to blossom across the Middle East.

The Oct. 7 U.S. withdrawal announcement took place immediately after a phone call between Donald Trump and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey remains – in official terms – a NATO ally.

In fact, it wasn’t the first time Trump had been swayed by Erdogan, a Sunni Islamist. In December 2018, a similar scenario had played out, climaxed by the troubling resignation of General (Ret) Jim Mattis, America’s popular Secretary of Defense. The shockwaves following that decision -- which also involved U.S. troop withdrawals -- were intense. Trump’s decision was reconsidered a few days later, but by then Mattis was gone.

This time, following Trump’s October surprise, Erdogan moved quickly. Less than three days later the Turkish Army – supported by radical Sunni mercenaries – began to bomb the towns and villages along the Syria-Turkey border.

Elizabeth Kourie represents Syriac Christians and the Democratic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (DAA). She visited the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom on Nov. 6. Her native tongue is Aramaic, the language of Jesus. My colleague Nina Shea and I spoke through her interpreter Robert Ozgun, who directs foreign affairs for the American Syriac Union.

We asked Kourie about recent accounts from groups like the Free Burma Rangers and the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), who have been detailing violent attacks targeting Christian villages. Kourie explained:

Following Trump’s phone call with Erdogan, within three days, Turkish troops began to move south across the Turkey-Syria border. They bombed all along the border. They were attacking anybody who was there; their targets were not military. Civilians were killed and wounded. Syriac Christians were terrified, fleeing small villages into larger towns.

One of the first bombs that came from Turkey struck a Syriac Christian house in Qamishli, severely injuring parents and their children.

Our people were very much afraid. We knew that Turkey was coming with its Sunni jihadist mercenaries. We faced them a year ago in Afrin. We faced them in the history of the Ottoman Empire. We have had experience with Turkey with a couple of genocides, the largest being 1915. We know that if Turkey is coming, it’s coming with jihadists. And we know that we Christians will be targeted more than anyone else. Today we estimate that 100,000 Syriac Christians are still somewhere in the area. 100,000 already fled in 2015.

Reportedly, since Erdogan’s troops began their assault, thousands of Christians have frantically fled their homes. Elizabeth Kourie and her colleagues managed to shelter some of them in private residences. Also, there are vacant houses still owned by Syriacs who have resettled in Europe. Syriac Cross, Elizabeth Kourie’s relief organization, was able to get permission from the homeowners in Europe to relocate now-homeless people in those empty houses.

“We have managed to take care of some of the Christians,” she explains. “The others, Arabs or Kurds, we’ve been able to help find shelter in empty schools which are out of session because of the war.”

In the days that followed the initial Turkish assault and random violence, Kurdish news service Rudaw reported that the primary water source serving a number of Christian villages was intentionally bombed by Turkish forces. This sabotage left some 500,000 people, at the time of Rudow’s reporting, without water.

When Turkey launched its ferocious invasion, most humanitarian organizations fled. Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization, is still providing assistance. On Nov. 3, the courageous Free Burma Rangers lost one of their cameramen, Zau Seng, to a mortar strike. Despite this tragedy, they are still on the ground providing emergency medical care.

Then, after two weeks of bloodshed, on Oct. 22, the New York Times reported :

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia played host to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey for more than six hours of talks on how they and other regional players will divide control of Syria, devastated by eight years of civil war. The negotiations cemented Mr. Putin’s strategic advantage: Russian and Turkish troops will take joint control over a vast swath of formerly Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria. The change strengthens the rapid expansion of Russian influence in Syria at the expense of the United States and its Kurdish former allies…

No one seems to know precisely what Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has in mind – now that he’s assumed authority alongside Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Our Syriac friends have their doubts about whether Putin will provide help to the Christians, despite his statements otherwise . But even if he chooses to help, they say that he will most certainly work through Syria’s Bashar Assad regime.

“So it’s either Turkey or Assad,” Kourie said. “And one is as bad as the other. If you ask me personally, as far as the Syrian regime is concerned, I’m on their terrorists’ list!”

Kourie is not alone in her concern. The entire Syriac Christian community is facing a life-and-death situation. She explains that temporary survival isn’t enough if their vulnerability continues.

The truth is obvious: Syriac Christians are not a threat to anybody. Not to Turkey, to Syria, to Iran, to Russia, to Kurds.

“In fact we believe that we are the key that can open the door to a democratic Syria,” Kourie said. “Meanwhile, we would like you to give a message to the churches in America:

“We are the indigenous people of our land. We are the first Christians, still speaking the language of Jesus. And we need help from the American people. We are asking how to establish our people, our way of thinking, our education, to improve the region and do away with the terrorist mentality. The only way to defeat ISIS and its mentality is not just to kill them. It’s to educate the local people with a better sense of rights for all.”

It is a noble vision, worthy of applause and support. But in the meantime there are urgent needs. At least 50,000 Christians – and likely many more – are now homeless and need to find long-term shelter and ongoing care.

The Syriac Christians’ most immediate concerns have to do with the impending arrival of winter. Shelter, blankets, jackets, gloves, boots, and more are needed. If we American Christians hope to be of help, we need to act quickly, before freezing weather settles into the Middle East.

Whether we applaud or are appalled by President Trump’s cooperation with Turkey’s Islamist regime, the northern Syrian people are caught in the crossfire between Turkey, Syria, Russia, and Islamist jihadists. Syriac Orthodox Christians are facing unpredictable dangers and extreme challenges.

As the saying goes, “Pray as if everything depends on God, and work as if everything depends on you.”

We certainly need to pray for our brothers and sisters in Syria. We can also help them in tangible ways – by providing urgently needed practical assistance. And by sharing their story. And, if we are so inclined, by making our voices heard about questionable American foreign policy decisions.

Read in Religion Unplugged