Syria's future tied to freedom for captured Christian leaders
Turkey and the US State Department must make the release of two captured Christian archbishops in Syria a top priority. At stake are not just their lives, or even the fate of Syrian Christians, but the fate of any hope of tolerance and pluralism in a post-Assad Syria – and the region as a whole.
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Syria’s Christians are in a particularly perilous position. These Christian communities are among the oldest in the world. According to the New Testament, it was on the road to Damascus that Paul converted to Christianity. Syria’s Christians have, until the current conflict, been well integrated into that society, keeping a low profile, mostly staying out of politics, living throughout the country, and contributing to the rich cultural tapestry of their nation and region.Skip to next paragraph
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But Syria’s Christians and the prospect of a tolerant endgame in Syria are now in direct peril as a result of the civil war. The latest example of this came on April 22, when the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Aleppo, Boulose Yazigi, and the Syriac Archbishop of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim, were kidnapped while carrying out humanitarian work in the area around Aleppo.
Syriac Orthodox Deacon Fatha' Allah Kabboud was killed during the abduction, and the driver, who escaped, reported that Chechen fighters participated in the kidnapping. This act was a clear provocation by rebel extremists designed to further drive fear into the heart of this community, which has largely viewed the opposition with concern due to its strong Islamist overtones.
Trends in the region are alarming. We saw the fate of Iraqi Christians, who were targets of killing, abductions, and harassment during the sectarian civil war that followed Iraq's liberation from Saddam Hussein in 2003. That community is estimated today to be less than half its pre-war level. More recently, we have seen attacks increase on Coptic churches and assemblies in Egypt and violence against Sufi shrines by Salafist jihadists in Libya and in Tunisia.
We’ve also seen heightened sectarian tensions in Lebanon, Syria’s neighbor, where Christians make up slightly more than 40 percent of the country’s 4 million people and have come to play an important balancing role between Sunni and Shiite factions in the country.
We join many of our colleagues in Congress and proponents of religious freedom and tolerance around the world in urging the international community to demand the release of the Syrian archbishops and send a message to a watching world, including other imperiled religious minorities throughout the region: Christians and all the diverse religions and ethnicities of Syria must have a safe future in a post-war Syria.
Chris Van Hollen (D) of Maryland is the ranking member of the House Budget Committee. Frank Wolf (R) of Virginia is the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce-Justice-Science and co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.