Once Protected, Christians Have Become Fair Game in Iraq and Syria

About 45,000 Christians out of a total Christian population of 2 million have fled Syria, and the pace is increasing.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

A warning appeared on many Facebook accounts in Iraq last week: “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant organization intends to attack English teachers.” It’s not clear why the group, which is an Al-Qaida offshoot that operates in Syria as well, chose Iraq’s English teachers as its target, though one Facebook user who got the warning surmised that “maybe they think English teachers teach the culture of Satan, and maybe they believe that only Christians teach English.”

But there’s no maybe about the fact that radical Islamist organizations in Iraq and Syria are not just fighting the governments of those countries. They also hope to lead Iraq and Syria down the path of fundamentalist Islam. As part of that goal, they are hoping to rid those countries of their non-Muslim minorities.

“The radical organizations are now attacking [Christian] children to get their parents to leave the country,” Maria Saada, a Christian member of the Syrian parliament, warned a few days ago. “In the last few days, five Christian schools have been attacked where children have been killed.”

According to Western estimates, about 45,000 Christians out of a total Christian population of about 2 million have fled Syria, and the pace is increasing. The statistics from Iraq are even more shocking. Of a minority population that numbered about 1.2 million in the 1990s, only between 200,000 and 500,000 Christians remain in the country. And the situation of those Christians who have stayed in Iraq, where more than 6,200 people have been killed this year, is particularly difficult, with high unemployment, discriminatory religious legislation and concerns for their personal safety.

But even the option of leaving Iraq is not an easy choice. Christians seeking to emigrate have a hard time selling their property and are forced to simply leave homes and other property behind. They face an uncertain prospect when it comes to being absorbed by other Arab countries, and efforts to join Christian Iraqi communities in the West are sometimes met with hostility on the part of the communities already there.

A spokesman for Open Doors, an organization that assists victims of anti-Christian persecution around the world, said that by the year 2020, Iraq could find itself without any Christians; since the beginning of the war in Iraq, more than 1,000 Christians have been killed and 61 churches destroyed.

Free Syrian Army joining in

In Syria, most of the harm done to Christians is attributed to radical groups such as the Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but according to accounts from Syrian Christian refugees in Turkey, soldiers from the rebel anti-Assad Free Syrian Army have also been abusing Christians, killing property owners and dividing the spoils among themselves. In many instances, Christians have been forced to convert and priests have been abducted. About 40 Christians were killed in Al-Qaida attacks in the town of Sadad north of Damascus.

A particular problem for Syrian Christians is that they are perceived as supporters of President Bashar Assad and his Ba’ath regime, which during the period of his rule protected the country’s Christian community. They have therefore become fair game as targets now. The situation of Syrian Christian women, many of whom have been raped by extremist Islamists as part of the punishment meted out to the Christian population, is particularly difficult.

Many refugees from Iraq and Syria prefer to head to Europe, but find that this route involves mortal danger or huge payments of money. An investigation by London’s Daily Telegraph newspaper found huge variation in the amounts demanded by Lebanese middle men engaged in smuggling the refugees. Someone with the means pays about 6,200 British pounds ($10,115) per person, which includes the cost of a forged Syrian passport, a flight to Istanbul, transportation by tourist bus from Turkey to Bulgaria and from there to a West European country.

On the other hand, poor refugees shell out 1,200 to 1,700 British pounds for a dangerous sea voyage on a dilapidated boat to Cyprus or Greece. The smuggling industry is flourishing in Turkey, and Jordan as well. One of the smugglers told a Turkish newspaper that he prefers Christian refugees “because they have more money and they are prepared to pay more, and usually they have families in the West that are ready to help with the payment.”

Limited Western influence

Western countries are not capable of doing much to protect Christian minorities in Iraq or Syria because the degree of their influence on those countries is very limited. And even when the leadership in the two countries promises to protect the Christians, the leaders find themselves facing other, more powerful forces. In Iraq the security forces are even accused of aiding Islamist organizations in their operations against Christian centers or individuals. And in Syria, protection of Christians - in areas controlled by the Syrian army - is a low priority.

In light of all this, news that reached Syrian refugees last week came as a particularly harsh blow. Forces with the Al-Nusra Front had taken over a military base belonging to the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council near the Bab-al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border. The area is a major artery through which refugees and goods find their way from Syria to Turkey. Due to the takeover, Turkey decided to close the border crossing, inflicting serious hardship on the refugees from Syria, particularly the Christians among them. Now they will be forced to head for other crossing points through cities and routes controlled by the radical groups.

And last Friday, Iraq marked the 10th anniversary of the capture of Saddam Hussein. In hindsight, that was a sad day from the standpoint of his country’s Christians. It is doubtful Christians would yearn for a similar scenario in Syria.

Yohanna al-Asher al-Yazeji, Greek Orthodox patriarch for the Levant, center, offers prayers for nuns held by rebels, at the Greek Orthodox Mariamiya Church in Damascus, Syria, Sunday Dec. 8, 2013. Credit: AP

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