Sectarian conflict emptying Syria of Christians

Christians have increasingly been targeted since the Syrian conflict devolved into a violent sectarian war.

al-monitor A soldier loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen in a damaged church in the Armenian Christian town of Kasab, June 16, 2014.  Photo by REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki.

Topics covered

syria, persecution, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state, christians, christian minorities

Jul 29, 2014

Since the sound of the first chants of protesters who took to the streets in Daraa and Banias in the early days of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, anxiety already had started to kick in and fill people’s hearts.

By virtue of their belonging to a threatened minority, and because Christians have been burned by the fire of the Iraqi experience which has not yet extinguished, the hearts of Christians were the most fertile ground for this anxiety. Successive events that occurred since that date have increased this anxiety and secured an appropriate turbulent and chaotic situation for the accelerated growth of such concerns.

As the crisis rages into 3½ years' duration, the suffering of Christians in Syria has undergone a remarkable increase. Anxiety reached a peak that was driven by the racial discrimination practiced against Christians, who were deemed second-class citizens.

Christians faced a systematic targeting. Specific people were targeted, some Christian villages were besieged and the most sanctified and historical Christian areas were seized. This led to the displacement of large numbers of Christians in Syria and to the destruction of many of their churches and property.

Although the slogan “Christians to Beirut … and Alawites to coffins!” accompanied the first demonstrations that started in Daraa and Banias at the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the opposition leaders who appeared on TV during that period kept attributing these slogans to individual errors that any “revolution” can commit. Thus, the “individual error” turned into a pretext aimed at justifying any violation carried out by the “revolution” that ceased to be peaceful and was ultimately represented by the “Free Army.”

Thus, 2011 came to an end with many abuse cases against Christians, whether physically, financially or morally. However, the climate of chaos and anarchy managed to overshadow these cases, whereas the few recorded cases were being handled based on the forgiven “individual error” logic.

With the beginning of 2012, the Christian concern turned into a real fear, specifically after the outbreak of cases of assault and abuse against Christians and their interests. This occurred especially in Hassaka province, which witnessed the first systematic attack against Christians as some “rebels” raised the slogan of “land for peace” — which implied the Christians’ giving up their farmland in exchange for ensuring their safety. This led to the establishment of the Council of Churches and Christian Relations, which called on the Syrian government to stop these attacks.

The establishment of this council was a clear expression of the extent of the crucial concerns that began to haunt the Christian component amidst chaos and unexpected possibilities.

Developments in the Syrian crisis subsequently revealed that the worst was yet to come and that Christians were in for many painful surprises, which included the siege of their regions, forcing them to opt for migration or displacement and obstructing them through direct military control.

June 2012 was a milestone in the targeting of Christians, when the commander of the “Free Army in the city of Qusair” issued the first warning of its kind to Christians to leave the city under the pretext of supporting the regime. Thus, Qusair saw the first wave of Christian exodus since the start of the Syrian crisis.

The number of displaced Christians rose to more than 10,000, which prompted the Vatican to issue its first statement denouncing this situation.

With the accelerated developments of the Syrian crisis, militants besieged the town of Rablah in the countryside of Homs, which is inhabited by about 12,000 Christians. Militants cut off water, electricity and food in Rablah for two weeks before the Syrian army was able to regain control.

In the meantime, the city of Yabrud fell under the control of militants, becoming the first Syrian city where insurgents imposed a jizya, a tax imposed on non-Muslim subjects under the rule of an Islamic state, on Christians. In October 2013, the city of Yabrud witnessed a heavy exodus of Christians after Jabhat al-Nusra targeted the Church of Our Lady and the Church of Constantine and Helen with improvised explosive devices (IEDs), resulting in their partial destruction.

Involving Aleppo in this phase of the revolution has further escalated the displacement of Christians. Reports suggest that more than half of the Christian population of the city, numbering 150,000, decided to emigrate and move to safer provinces or neighboring countries such as Turkey, Greece or Armenia, after militants of al-Tawhid Brigade seized control of their neighborhoods.

Moreover, the kidnapping of Bishops Boulos Yazigi and Youhana Ibrahim in April 2013 who are still missing, had a significant impact on the morale of the Christians of Aleppo. This is not to mention the kidnapping of Father Francois Murad, who was filmed being beheaded by jihadists from the Chechen group of Abu al-Banat.

The invasion of the towns of Mahin and Sadad in October 2013 was the main reason for the displacement of hundreds of Christians from the surrounding towns. However, the beginning of their fresh suffering started in the region of Qalamoun, where Christians had been escaping when insurgents entered the region, starting with the towns of Qara, all the way to an-Nabek, Dayr Atiyah, and ending in Yabrud.

The most painful moments for Christians were when Jabhat al-Nusra militants stormed the archaeological and historical city of Maaloula, which is seen as one the last cities speaking the language of Christ. The city was invaded twice: once in September 2013, resulting in the displacement of the majority of the citizens; and then in December, when many churches were destroyed and vandalized. This is not to mention the kidnapping of the nuns who were abducted and moved to Yabrud, where they were released after several months under a known deal.

In another chapter of the Christians’ exodus in Syria, in late March the militants of Jabhat al-Nusra, along with jihadists from Chechen and other Islamic groups attacked the city of Kessab and its Armenian-majority population. The city witnessed heavy displacement of its residents, who feared another genocide akin to the one under the Ottoman Empire nearly 100 years ago.

The biggest calamity for Christians in Syria was when the Islamic State (IS) imposed a jizya on the Christians of Raqqa province, which was completely under its control.

Statistics indicate that the number of displaced Christians inside and outside Syria amounts to 450,000, while 1,200 were killed, 60 churches were vandalized and destroyed, and the residents of 24 Christian towns had to flee their homes because of the fighting.

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More from  Abdallah Suleiman Ali

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