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Dual threat to Christians from sectarian conflict in Syria

03 August 2012


What is left: a church in Homs, damaged during clashes between Syrian rebels and govern­ment forces last month

What is left: a church in Homs, damaged during clashes between Syrian rebels and govern­ment forces last month

THE growing intensity of the conflict in Syria, and the increasing signs of the rebels' success, are leaving the country's Christian minority in a doubly dangerous position. Like all civilians, they are caught in the crossfire; and they are also at risk from the way in which the rebels are being boosted by Islamic extremist fighters.

It is impossible to say how many Christians are among the 17,000 people who have been killed, or the 120,000 who have been forced to flee their homes, but there are indications that many thousands are being affected by the conflict.

The Barnabas Fund, which supports Christians where they are in a minority and suffer discrimination, says that "tens of thousands of Christians have been driven from their cities by threats and violence. Almost the entire Christian populations of Homs and Qusayr have fled to surrounding villages or further afield. . . They are in urgent need of food and other essentials."

There is also danger facing Christians from the rebel movement's being aided by Islamic extremist soldiers from Syria and surround-ing countries. As the Barnabas Fund says: "The opposition forces and the militant groups that support them are largely hostile to Christians, believing them to be supporters of the government. An Islamist takeover is likely to generate further violence against Christians."

Most Christians who have decided to leave Syria are trying to reach Jordan and Lebanon. The Barnabas Fund is one of several international groups that are attempting to help displaced Christian families in Syria and other countries in the Middle East with food and other essentials. It is appealing to Christians around the world to sponsor a family for £18 a month.

Christian Aid is also working with its partners in Lebanon and elsewhere to help meet the needs of the tens of thousands fleeing Syria. The Roman Catholic aid organisation Caritas Internationalis, which has been active in the past in helping Iraqis fleeing to Syria, says that it is now offering help to the thousands displaced by the conflict there.

The head of Caritas Lebanon, Fr Simon Faddoul, said last week that "people are fleeing the war and coming to Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Here in Lebanon, it's been like a human flood over the border from Damascus. In 24 hours, we had, at one time last week, over 15,000 people enter at one legal border-crossing. If you count all the rest who come in other ways, it's far more."

In the mean time, a group of Syriac, Chaldean, and Assyrian intellectuals living in Europe and the United States has called for the creation of a separate region in Syria for its Christian community. "We have to look after and protect ourselves in an autonomous region; the need for a federal structure is deeply felt," the Syriac political analyst Adnan Challma, based in Brussels, said.

The group recently issued a declaration accusing the Baathist regime of President Bashar al-Assad of depriving the Syriac, Chaldean, and Assyrian communities of their legal rights. It said: "The opposition to the Baath dictatorship in Syria, which was democratic at the beginning, has acquired an Islamist tendency with foreign support."

The declaration said that a "government formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists, pro-al-Qaeda figures, and Salafists would be a disaster for our people in Syria and all the Christians in the Middle East".

The chairman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, the Bishop of Clifton, the Rt Revd Declan Lang, has also expressed concerns about the increasingly sectarian aspect of the violence. In a statement on Tuesday, Bishop Lang said that his thoughts were with all Syrians: "I pray today that they will succeed in building up a society of equal citizens in which all Syrians of all backgrounds will enjoy a future marked with reconciliation and plurality and where they will rid themselves from all forms of sectarianism."

The intensity and scope of the fighting in Syria are causing some to question whether Pope Benedict XVI might be forced to cancel his trip to Lebanon, planned for Septem- ber, because of violence spilling over the border.

The secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, Michel Roy, said he feared that "if the war develops, which is the case right now, and I don't think it will stop very easily", fighting already having broken out in northern Lebanon, then the Pope would have to cancel the trip. It would have been a landmark visit for the different Churches in the region, as well as for the RC Church's relations with the Arab world, he said.



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