Syria’s Christians Under Threat

The wildfire victories of the Islamic State (IS, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in northern Iraq and Syria have left the area’s minorities under threat.

Torn between fighting back and leaving for good, Assyrians, Syriacs, Armenians, and Kurds, all inhabitants of the area and part of its rich historic legacy, are weighing their ever-diminishing options.

IS policies, inspired by a fanatical version of Islam, were made clear in its conquest of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. There, they destroyed Christian and Shiite places of worship and demanded that all non-Muslims pay the jizya, an ancient poll tax, observe a certain dress code, or convert to Islam.

Exile is another option that the IS has offered to the conquered population. Many escaped before the arrival of the hardened followers of the Al-Qaeda affiliate, which recently declared its leader a caliph and demanded that all Muslims obey him.

Last week, IS forces converged on Al-Hasakah in northeastern Syria, a province dominated by Christians, and claimed it would annex it to its expanding territories.

IS leaders said that they plan to “liberate” the provincial capital of Al-Hasakah from the “hands of the infidels,” an epithet which it uses indiscriminately in reference to Muslims and non-Muslims who oppose its brutal methods.

The IS has proved itself to be a tough adversary in battle. Its fighters are toughened by years of fighting in both Iraq and Syria, and have a high morale after their recent successes. Armed with superior weaponry stolen from the arms depots of the Iraqi army, IS fighters are now engaged in skirmishes near Al-Hasakah, testing the city’s defences before an assault.

Inside the city, the various communities have come together to defend themselves. Reports from the beleaguered city speak of a growing coalition of Kurds, Christian militia, and regime forces — groups that have conflicting agendas but are now united by the threat of a common enemy.

Allowing Al-Hasakah to fall into the hands of IS would be a death sentence for the historic city’s cultural diversity and its long legacy of inter-communal co-existence.

Al-Hasakah’s inhabitants take pride in the near absence of fanaticism in their community, but to fight back against IS they will need more than pride: they need serious fighting power and superior logistics.

Members of the Syrian opposition claim that the regime is using the IS to restore its own image as a protector of minorities. If the Assad regime has any hope of staying in power, it must convince the minorities that their survival is linked to the survival of the regime.

The tactic may be working. Reports from Al-Hasakah speak of cooperation between the city’s inhabitants and the Syrian army.

If the IS manages to take the city, Al-Hasakah inhabitants will have to leave en masse, said Jamil Diarbakerli, an Istanbul-based representative of the Assyrian Democratic Organisation.

“There have been cases of departures of Christians from the city, and these may develop into an exodus because what happened in Mosul planted terror into the hearts of the inhabitants. Should this happen, the region will lose much of its culture and history,” he said.

According to Diarbakerli, the international community “bears a humanitarian and legal responsibility towards the nations of the region, especially the Christians” and must not leave them at the mercy of extremist groups.

But some inhabitants of Al-Hasakah denied that the population was willing to leave and promised instead to fight for the city.

Sources in Al-Hasakah said that meetings had been held by various groups in the city and steps were being taken to protect it against the IS.

Soliman Yussef, an Al-Hasakah-based researcher, said that the Christians of the city were determined to stay.

“It is true that a few Christian families have left the city, but it is wrong to speak of this as an exodus. Most of those who left came back after the city came under the control of local community groups,” Yussef said.

“Kurdish forces are now in control of large areas of Al-Hasakah, and they take their orders from the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union, which is known for its close ties with the regime.”

But the future is still uncertain, he admitted.

“An exodus will be expected if the battles move inside the city or if Al-Hasakah were to fall to IS. Should this happen, everyone will leave and not only the Christians,” he said.

A French proposal to offer asylum to Syria’s beleaguered Christians has caused outrage in the country. Syrian church leaders rejected the French government’s offer, saying that it could jeopardise the future of their community.

If France really wants to help, it should use its international influence to demand protection for the Christians in their current home, not encourage their displacement, some said.

Many Syrian Christians, especially Assyrians, left for Europe over the past 20 years. Within the past three years, the pace of emigration has picked up.

The same trend is noticeable in Iraq, where many Iraqi Christians left after seeing their churches bombed and members of their community slain as part of the ongoing carnage that has proved particularly hazardous to minorities.

Many Syrians, Muslims included, are worried about the loss of cultural diversity caused by fanaticism and the persecution of minorities. Some point out that Christians used to make up 15 per cent of the nation. Although statistics are not readily available, the figure today may be as low as five per cent.

In pre-revolutionary Syria, minorities had few complaints. The state guaranteed them the right to worship, and Christians were able to build churches and establish societies.

The state did not grant them special laws on marriage and inheritance, and they are still banned from the presidency, however. But they enjoyed religious freedom and the usual set of citizen rights.

But since the start of the civil war, Syrian Christians, among the worst affected by the violence, have found the temptation to leave hard to resist. With offers of asylum from more than one western nation, many Christians decided that enough was enough.

This is a trend that may alter forever the cultural fabric of Syria, a country that was once considered the birthplace of Christianity.

Source: Orthodox Church Info