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Opinion

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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The war in Syria, which began in April 2011 with peaceful protests against the oppressive regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is no longer just a struggle between opposition forces and the government. It has now also become a religious, sectarian civil war.

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Among those caught in the crossfire are Syria's Christians, who were estimated to number 2.5 million, or roughly 10 percent of Syria’s population prior to the conflict. On April 22, two Syriac Christian archbishops were captured and another leader was killed in an attack by extremist fighters. We have joined a bipartisan group of our colleagues in Congress in urging the Department of State to make the freeing of the archbishops an urgent priority. We also call on Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to use Turkey’s good offices to help facilitate their timely release.

At stake are not just the lives of two religious men, or even the fate of the Syrian Christian community, but the fate of any hope of tolerance and pluralism in the Syrian endgame – and perhaps in the region as a whole.

The war in Syria is a humanitarian tragedy of epic proportions, not just for the Syrian people but for the entire Middle East and concerned peoples around the world. More than 70,000 Syrians have been killed, 4.25 million are internally displaced, 6.8 million are in need of assistance, and 1.3 million have registered as refugees in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations.

The sectarian complexion of the struggle in Syria has given a new life to jihadists and extremists on both sides of the contest. Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite terrorist organization backed by Iran, supports Mr. Assad's government. Among the opposition forces in Syria are terrorist organizations such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, which is a partner of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, in a statement to Congress, said that “AQI's Syria-based network, the Nusrah Front, is one of the best organized and most capable of the Sunni terrorist groups.”

Jabhat Al-Nusra and similar radical groups advocate an extreme form of sharia (Islamic law) in Syria. Fighting under the black flag associated with Al Qaeda, in their minds these groups are engaged in a broader holy war for a new Islamic caliphate. Syria’s minority groups, including Syriac Christians, Allawites, Kurds, and Druze, are not part of their post-Assad vision. Videos on YouTube and Facebook show fighters proclaiming their determination to murder all non-believers when they see victory in Syria.

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