The civil war in Syria, which has had a devastating effect on the church, grew out of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement. Syrians began to protest against President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party government and to demand the release of political prisoners, and in March 2011 troops were ordered to fire on protestors. The ensuing unrest led to the development of an armed opposition. This opposition grew into a coalition of rebels trying to overthrow the government and includes numerous jihadi groups, including foreign Muslim extremists who flooded into Syria to join the fight. Islamic state claimed parts of Syria for its caliphate.
The death toll in the civil war is uncertain, but it is thought that up to 470,000 Syrians have died. More than 7.5 million people are internally displaced and over 4.8 million are refugees in other countries, with many living in tents or other temporary housing in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. More than half of all Syrians are no longer living in their homes.
Rival armed militias roam Syria’s cities and law and order have largely broken down. Many buildings have been destroyed and houses looted; food, medicine and fuel are in short supply. It is estimated that seven million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The suffering of Christians in the civil war
Since the start of the civil war, over a million Christians have left Syria, and many others have been raped, tortured, kidnapped for ransom and killed. The UN estimates that of the 1.8 million Christians living in Syria before the war only 600,000 – 900,000 remain. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have been displaced from their homes by threats and violence, and hundreds have been martyred for their faith. Almost the entire Christian population of some cities has fled.
The Christian population of Homs, a city particularly badly affected by the war, is reported to have declined from at least 60,000 to fewer than 1,000. Aleppo, on the front line of fighting between the government, rebel forces and Islamic State for much of the war, had one of the largest pre-war Christian populations in Syria, but it has dropped from 250,000 to fewer than 40,000 Christians.
Refugees often end up living in squalid and dangerous conditions, many of them trafficked by brutal, extortionist smugglers. Church leaders in Lebanon and Turkey are overwhelmed by the numbers of Christian refugees arriving every day, looking for food and shelter. Christians who end up in refugee camps face the additional hazard of violence from extremist Muslims in the camps.
Many Syrian churches and monastries have been attacked, making it impossible for some congregations to hold services, and priests have been kidnapped and even killed, like Father Fadi Haddad of Qattna in the capital, Damascus.
Many Christians have been kidnapped due to the perception that they are wealthy and lack armed security – many of those kidnapped are doctors, lawyers and other professionals, although kidnappings have extended to include the poor. The incidence of kidnapping has increased so much that some Christians are afraid to leave their own neighbourhoods.
About 90,000 displaced Christians fled to the predominantly Christian area of Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of the Christians), but on 17 August 2013 about 15 of them were shot dead by Islamist gunmen at a hotel where the Christians were holding a celebration.
On 4 September 2013, al-Queda-linked rebels attacked the historic Christian village of Maaloula, which is one of the few places in the world where Aramaic (the language of Jesus) is still spoken. After a suicide bomber blew himself up at a government checkpoint, the rebels beseiged the village, entered every Christian home and destroyed evidence of the residents’ faith. At least ten Christians were killed, about 15 were kidnapped, and most of the village’s residents were forced to flee. Some have now returned.
On 15 February 2015, Islamic State captured 253 Assyrian Christians from villages along the Khabour River in Hassaka province. The terrorists released the hostages in groups, beginning with the elderly and children, and the final group was released on 22 February 2016. In October 2015, Islamic State released a video showing the execution of three of the hostages.
On 6 August 2015, Islamic State militants captured the town of Qaratayn, in Homs Governorate. They demolished a monastery, took over 200 Christians hostage and murdered 21 of the 300 Christians trapped in the city. Some hostages were taken to Raqqa in northern Syria, Islamic State’s de facto capital; many were ransomed by their families. The ruined city of Qaratayn was retaken by Russian-backed Syrian forces on 3 April 2016. Raqqa was retaken in November 2017, as Islamic State militants were pushed out of the large swathes of territory they had taken in Iraq and Syria. Some of the terrorists reportedly dispersed into the Syrian countryside, while others are believed to have escaped into Turkey.
Priests in trouble
Two bishops were kidnapped on 22 April 2013 in the village of Kfar Dael on the road to Aleppo in northwestern Syria. Aleppo’s Syriac Orthodox bishop, Yohanna Ibrahim, and Greek Orthodox bishop, Boulos Yaziji, were on a mission to negotiate the release of two priests abducted on 9 February (Michel Kayyal of the Armenian Catholic church and Mahar Mahfouz of the Greek Orthodox church). The bishops’ car was intercepted and their driver was shot dead.
The identity of the kidnappers is unknown, and the bishops are still being held. Some reports say that rebel forces have taken responsibility, although another report blames radical Chechens. The opposition and those loyal to President Assad blame each other for the abduction.
Why are Christians being targeted?
Christians are being targeted by Islamist opposition factions who want Syria to become a Sunni Muslim state, notably Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the al-Qaeda offshoot previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front. Such extremists adopted a slogan, “Alawites to the tomb and Christians to Beirut”. (President Assad and his supporters are Alawites, members of a Shi’ite sect that makes up only 12% of Syria’s population – the majority is Sunni Muslim – but is influential in the army and government.)
Christians are widely believed by the opposition to be supporters of President Assad, since they enjoyed relative freedom and security under the rule of the secular Baath party (which many Christians joined). The Baath party and other secular parties suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafists. Christians who try to stay neutral, however, are in danger from government security agents.
Another factor leading to the targeting of Christians is the fact that many radical fundamentalists come from poor rural communities and urban slums and hold grudges against prosperous Christians.
What do Christian leaders fear?
Christians in Syria fear the collapse of the state. In other countries where dictatorships were overthrown in the Arab Spring, such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, Christians are suffering more persecution under Islamist regimes than they did under the dictatorships that offered them some protection from Islamist groups. Christians fear that a Sunni takeover of Syria would lead to increased restrictions and persecution.
Christians in Syria are afraid that their church will go the way of the church in Iraq. There, in the anarchy following the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians were given the same three options that are being put to Syrian Christians: convert to Islam, leave the country or die. This threat was followed up by kidnappings, murders and the bombing of church buildings.
Before the civil war
The Syrian church goes back to New Testament times. Before the civil war, Syrian Christians enjoyed relative freedom and stability, were prosperous, had good relations with Muslims and were respected in society. They were allowed to worship and practise their faith without much official interference, and although meetings were monitored, Christian literature was freely available. There was some discrimination (for example in connection with housing and employment) and some emigration, but Syria was one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian.
The Christian population was concentrated in cities, especially Damascus, and consisted mainly of Orthodox and Catholic Christians. There was a small but growing Protestant church, mostly comprising Christians from Orthodox and Catholic backgrounds. Conversion from Islam was rare.
(Barnabas Fund, BBC, Christian Post, Irish Times, Middle East Concern, Morning Star News, Open Doors, Operation World, Reuters, Tear Fund, UN, Voice of the Martyrs Canada, World Watch List, World Watch Monitor)
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On 22 February, Islamic State released a final group of 43 Assyrian Christian hostages from the Hassaka group abducted in February 2015.
Earlier today (29 January), another group of 16 Christian hostages was freed by Islamic State militants who had been holding them captive since February 2015.
The latest group of released hostages is comprised mainly of women and children and includes four mothers and their children. As with previous releases, the freed hostages were met by Bishop of Syria Mar Afram Athneil who is Chairman of the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO).
Yesterday (14 January), a further group of Assyrian Christian hostages was released by Islamic State militants who had been holding them captive since February 2015.
The released hostages comprised eight children, three women and five men. They arrived in Tel Temir town, Hassaka province, northeast Syria on Thursday afternoon. They were met and embraced by Archbishop Afram Athneil, Chairman of Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organisation (ACERO).