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.

Hussein Malla/AP/File
Syrian citizens walk in front of a church that was shelled by mortars at the Christian village of Judeida, in Idlib province, Syria, Feb. 21. Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Frank Wolf urge 'the international community to demand the release of the [captured] Syrian archbishops and send a message to a watching world... Christians and all the diverse religions and ethnicities of Syria must have a safe future in a post-war Syria.'

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.

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.

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.

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.

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