The following is the testimony of Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute's Center For Religious Freedom, for the Committee On Foreign Affairs, U.S. House Of Representatives, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. The hearing was held on June 25.
I commend the two Subcommittees for holding this critically important and timely hearing today. The question of the treatment of religious minorities concerns America's core values as a nation, but, in recent foreign policy, it is one that the United States has too often failed to address, with tragic results. It represents a grave human rights crisis and undermines our national security interests. I am honored to have been invited to testify for the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. In my testimony, I will focus on the situation of the various Christian groups in Syria, and the threat they face to their continued existence in their ancient homeland. This threat, which undoubtedly applies equally to Syria's other defenseless and even smaller minorities -- such as the Yizidis (80,000) and Jews (under 100) -- about whom there is scant information, is not recognized or understood in US foreign policy. We are grateful to the Subcommittees two chairs, Rep. Christopher H. Smith and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for giving attention to this issue. In the Middle and Targeted with Ethno-Religious Cleansing In Syria's conflict, now characterized as overtly sectarian, every religious and ethnic group* has experienced catastrophic loss and pain. Reportedly over the past two years of war, 93,000 combatants and civilians, of diverse religious identities, have been killed, 1.5 million have become refugees, and 4.5 million more have been internally displaced. Though no religious community has been spared suffering, Syria's ancient Christian minority has cause to believe that they confront an "existential threat," according to a finding of the UN Human Right Council's Commission of Inquiry on Syria, last December. And this group, in contrast to Syria's Alawites, Shiites and Sunnis, has no defender. Syria's Christians are primarily ethnically Assyrian but some are also Armenian and Arab, who together number between 2-2.5 million or 10 percent of the population, and follow some ten different faith traditions.** They face a distinct peril so dire that their ability to survive in Syria is being seriously doubted by church leaders and independent secular observers, alike. While in some neighborhoods they struggle to maintain defense committees, they lack militias of their own. Nor do they have protective tribal structures, or support from any outside power. Referencing Syria, Archbishop Elias Chacour, head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Israel, remarked a few weeks ago that, while many people are facing hardship and dying in the Arab Spring, no group is suffering more than Christians. Living largely in the Syrian governorates of Hassake, Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo, the Christians are extremely vulnerable. They are indeed stranded in the middle of a brutal war, where each side -- regime and rebel -- fires rockets into civilian areas and carry out indiscriminate bloody attacks daily. The Christian churches, which were registered and permitted by the Assad regime, have not formally allied themselves with either side in the conflict and in fact Christians have largely avoided taking sides despite intense pressure to do so by both the government and the opposition. For example, Christians have been reportedly displaced by the regime in Tal Nasri, Um Sharshoh, and the old city of Homs. They have been reportedly displaced by the Free Syrian Army in Mesmye, Daraa, Ghassaniy, Idlib, Quseir and Rable in Homs. And clashes between the two sides caused displacements that disproportionately impacted the Christian residents, though Muslims were also affected, in Ras al-Ayn, Deir el-Zor. The Christians, however, are not simply caught in the middle, as collateral damage. They are the targets of a more focused shadow war, one that is taking place alongside the larger conflict between the Shiite-backed Baathist Assad regime and the largely Sunni rebel militias. Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear. Wherever they appear, Islamist militias have made life impossible for the Christians. Metropolitan Archbishop Jean Clement Jeanbart, of Aleppo's Melkite Greek Catholic Church, told the Rome-based Catholic outlet, AsiaNews, "Christians are terrified by these militias and fear that in the event of their victory they would no longer be able to practice their religion and that they would be forced to leave the country." He explained: "As soon as they reached the city [of Aleppo], Islamist guerrillas, almost all of them from abroad, took over the mosques. Every Friday, an imam launches their messages of hate, calling on the population to kill anyone who does not practice the religion of the Prophet Muhammad. They use the courts to level charges of blasphemy. Who is contrary to their way of thinking pays with his life." Unprotected, the Christians are also prime victims of kidnappers and thieves. In one example last February, a Syrian Orthodox dentist in Aleppo told the American Christian Morningstar News that he finally fled into exile when the constant fear of sniper-fire and kidnapping of Christians made life too dangerous. "Some people would come to my dental office and threaten me with kidnapping," he says. The outlet reported that "[i]n the city of Hassak
* According to a U.S. government source, the population of Syria is approximately 22.5 million. Sunni Muslims constitute 74 percent of the population and includes Arabs, Kurds, Circassians, Chechens, and some Turkomans. Other Muslim groups, including Alawis, Ismailis, and Shia, together, constitute 13 percent. Druze account for 3 percent of the population. Various Christian groups constitute 10 percent. There is also a tiny Jewish population, numbering between 20-100 people. Yezidis number about 80,000. ** Most Christians belong to the Orthodox churches, the Uniate churches (which recognize Roman Catholic papal authority), the independent Nestorian Church and several Protestant churches.