In Syria's rebellion, no religious or ethnic group has been spared horrific levels of loss and suffering, but its 2,000-year-old Christian minority is now facing a distinct persecution.
Under the cover of war and chaos, this group, which alone lacks militias of its own, is easy prey for Islamists and criminals, alike. These assaults are driving out the Christians en masse. This 2,000-year-old community, numbering around 2 million is the largest church in the Middle East after Egypt's Copts, and it now faces extinction.
Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East, despite recent heart surgery, is now constantly on the road in Lebanon and Iraq trying to cope with the refugee crisis. He wrote to me today:
“We are witnessing another Arab country losing its Christian Assyrian minority. When it happened in Iraq nobody believed Syria's turn would come. Christian Assyrians are fleeing massively from threats, kidnappings, rapes and murders. Behind the daily reporting about bombs there is an ethno-religious cleansing taking place, and soon Syria can be emptied of its Christians.”
Official information and media reports about the Christians' fate has been sparse. A new report yesterday, by Nuri Kino, a Swedish journalist of Assyrian background, sheds valuable light on the atrocities visited upon the Christians inside Syria, and their ordeals in attempting to escape, relying as they must on exploitative human-trafficking networks that have sprung up. Entitled “Between the Barbed Wire,” the report resulted from a trip sponsored by a Swedish charity, the Syriac Orthodox Youth Organization, to assess the needs of refugees. It is based on over a hundred interviews this past Christmas with Christian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon.
The refugees and the Lebanese bishops whom Kino and his team interview relate that Christians are leaving in a torrent. Once they cross into Lebanon, guided by Middle Eastern versions of “coyotes” through a harrowing series of checkpoints guarded by various sides in the conflict, they mostly seek out the local Christian communities for help. A clearly overwhelmed Archbishop George Saliba, on Mount Lebanon, says about the refugees: “I want to help as many as I can, but it is not sustainable. We have hundreds of Syrian refugees who arrive every week. I don't know what to do.”
Elsewhere in Lebanon, St. Gabriel's monastery has opened its 75 unheated rooms to over a hundred refugees. In another Lebanese Christian town, the Syrian Catholic patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Josef III has converted a school building into a shelter for the hundreds of refugees there now and the others constantly arriving. The patriarch describes it as the “great exodus taking place in silence.” He also says he houses Christians who fled several years ago from Iraq. All of the Christian towns visited for the report are scrambling to keep up with the influx of Syrian Christians. Church leaders were grateful for the beds, washing machines, heaters, and medicine brought by the Swedish visitors.
Some of the Syrians say they plan to stay in Lebanon until Syria “calms down” and they can return to their homes. Many others say going back is “unthinkable” and are making plans to try to get to Europe either on valid visas or by paying smugglers the going rate of $20,000. They are largely small-business owners and skilled professionals — an engineer and his family, a jeweler and his, a hairdresser, a medical student, etc. Many hope to be smuggled to Sweden and Germany, where they can receive some state subsidies until they find work. The town of Sodertalje seems to be a popular destination, with 35 new Christian families arriving from Syria each week. Kino, himself a citizen of Sodertalje, relates that there are already many Syrian Christians living there, and Arabic is more common than Swedish.
The refugees were panic-stricken, pointing to some horrifying triggering event that forced them out — a kidnapping of a relative, a murder, or a robbery. They feel they are targeted for being Christian, which means that militants and criminals can assault them with impunity. Some point to a government that fails to protect them; others to Islamists rebels who want to drive them out. A refugee tells Kino: “Two men from a strong Arabic tribe decided one day to occupy our farmland, just like that. When I went to the police to report, I was told there was nothing they could do. The police chief was very clear that they would not act, as they didn't want the tribe to turn against the regime.”
A woman from Hassake recounts how her husband and son were shot in the head by Islamists. “Our only crime is being Christians,” she answers when asked if there had been a dispute.
A father says: “We're not poor, we didn't run from poverty. We ran from fear. I have to think about my twelve-year-old daughter. She's easy prey for kidnappers. Three children of our friends were kidnapped. In two cases they paid enormous ransoms to get the children back, and in one case they paid but got the child back dead.”
Another man attests: “In Syria, you don't know who is your friend and who is your enemy. The wealthy have it the worst. Criminals wait in line to kidnap them.”
The refugees all fear the Islamists. When the jihadi rebel units show up and take over a town, like Rasel-Eyn, it loses its Christian population over night. One man from there tells Kino: “The so-called Free Syrian Army, or rebels, or whatever you choose to call them in the West, emptied the city of its Christians, and soon there won’t be a single Christian in the whole country.”
There is no complete data on the number of refugees. How many Christians have fled is not known and escapees continue to come across the border each day. We are only beginning to understand the peril they face.
Archdeacon Youkhana pleads: “The world must open their eyes to the plight.”
Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson Publishers, March 2013).