In the ravaged country, many religious institutions and buildings, both Muslim and Christian, have been hit, damaged or destroyed. The confessional element of the conflict has been underlined by commentators, especially those, on both sides, blaming the intervention of foreign forces on the battlefield.
The Iran-backed Shia militia and party, Hezbollah, gave its support to the loyalists, while the rebels were soon joined by Sunni radical groups, whose behavior, however, has increasingly changed with time: some groups, such as the qaedist faction ISIS, clashed with the rebels themselves.
In this context, Syrian Christians (who make up between 5% and 10% of the population) have shared the fate of the entire population, being under attack, as a Minority Group International report wrote, quoting eyewitness sources, “by both armed militias and the government” even when carrying “no guns”. “They are not at war, but they suffer from it”, says Fr. Samir Khalil Samir also, an Egyptian Jesuit and a professor at both St. Joseph University in Beirut and the Pontifical Oriental Institute. “They say: ‘we are a part of the Syrian people, everything happening to my neighbor, whether he is Sunni or Shia, or anything else, also affects me’, and that’s why they are targeted by extremists of both sides”, Fr. Samir adds.
The Ma’aloula nuns
Many episodes – although not easy to reconstruct due to the lack of independent sources in the war-torn country – have sparked international outrage. One of the most recent is the disappearance, at the beginning of December, of twelve Orthodox nuns who went missing from Saint Tecla convent, one of the many churches and monasteries in Ma’aloula, 50 kilometers northwest of Damascus. This same village was the scene of a battle between rebels and government forces which affected the local Christian community in September. According to media reports, the nuns were taken by force from the convent by opposition fighters, while a Syrian opposition activist said they were taken away for their own safety.
The Ma’aloula nuns are not the only Christians held hostages in the country: two priests, Michel Kayyal (an Armenian Catholic) and Maher Mahfouz (a Greek Orthodox) were kidnapped in February 2013; the Italian Jesuit father Paolo Dall’Oglio was kidnapped last July in Raqqa, an ISIS-held town in the North, when reportedly negotiating either a local ceasefire or the liberation of some hostages. Also the whereabouts of two Orthodox bishops, Boulos Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim, are currently unknown. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned such acts in a statement in January, saying that “the United Nations rejects any targeting of persons based on their religion, community or ethnic affiliation”. “Civilians throughout Syria are at risk and must be protected”, the communiqué read on.
Abuses carried out by militias – especially Islamist ones – have made much of the news when it came to Christians. Last June a Catholic priest, Fr. François Murad, was killed by ‘an anti-government group’ in Idlib, the report of a UN-backed independent commission of inquiry on Syria stated. In towns and villages seized by radical fighters, some Christian religious buildings were desecrated, as happened in Raqqa, where last September ISIS fighters stormed both the Greek Orthodox church of the Annunciation and an Armenian church, replacing the cross with an al-Qaeda flag. The jihadists also imposed strict rules – in accordance with their version of sharia – on the entire population.
In the besieged city
On the other hand, the already mentioned UN-backed commission accused the government of “positioning military objectives inside towns and villages” whose population is “mainly Shia, Alawite Christian”, and this behavior “contributed to rising sectarian tensions”. Also in Homs, among those trapped in the city center surrounded by government troops, there are Christians, led by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Frans Van der Lugt, who recently raised the alarm: people in the besieged city are “dying of hunger”. In equally dramatic situations, however, Christians managed to help those who were in need or risked their lives, as in Bayda, where, according to Human Rights Watch, many Sunnis at risk of being slaughtered by government after May 2 found shelter in Christian neighborhoods, or in Homs, where a Catholic cleric, Fr. Ghassan Sahoui, still runs a center which gives aid to several hundred children and disabled people.
Humanitarian assistance is not the only reason why Syrian Christians are precious to their home country. That is why the fact that many of them are leaving the country should be a reason of great concern, despite the number of those fleeing (at least several tens of thousands) is just a fraction of the total number of the Syrians forced to escape. At a time when many underline the risk that “the political dictatorship of Assad is replaced by a radical Islamic regime”, says Fr. Khalil Samir Khalil, “the flight of Christians is dangerous for the whole country, for it makes stronger this same “radicalism, which is unwanted even by the majority of Muslims”. So this ‘exodus’, he adds “will have consequences on the religious freedom and the cultural diversity which is an asset for Syria”. Syrian Christians, the Jesuit scholar remembers, gave a great contribution to the whole area, in many fields: they were instrumental in originating, since the mid-19th century, the so called Renaissance of the Arab culture and language and, more recently, a concept of citizenship not based on religious affiliation. They also gave birth “to the concept of an Arab Nation, of an Arab community from a cultural, historical and political point of view”. In doing that, Fr. Khalil Samir Khalil explains, “they united Christians and Muslims of the Middle East”, and their current role in Syria, as citizens, is not different. “They try to make reason prevail, their fight is not for the Sunnis, or the Shias, but for human rights, freedom and democracy, for a cultural and social humanism”. (D.M.)