As Syria's war rages, region's Christians hold their breath

Christians in the Middle East have faced greater persecution as a result of political change in recent years, and now Syria's Christians feel they're in the cross hairs.

Hussein Malla/AP
Syrian citizens walk in the Christian village of Judeida, in Idlib province, Syria in February. Yacobiyeh and its neighbors, Judeida and Quniya, are some of the first Christian villages to be taken by the rebel Syrian Army. The villages are largely empty due to the fighting, with a few mostly elderly Christians living among Sunni Muslim refugees.

Syrian rebels linked with Al Qaeda have reportedly taken over the historic Christian town of Maaloula, deepening concerns that without the protection of President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s Christians, roughly 10 percent of the population, could be left vulnerable to mass emigration or persecution.

“I want [Mr. Assad] to stay in power because he was very good to Christians,” said Athraa, a young Syrian mother who recently fled from her village on the Syria-Iraq border to Jordan with her husband and two sons.

“There was religious freedom for Christians with Bashar…. We were not missing anything,” she said, speaking several days before Maaloula fell in her simple Amman apartment, with suitcases teetering atop a rundown armoire. “We are expecting what has happened in Iraq to happen in Syria as well.”

Indeed, from Egypt to Lebanon to Syria, many Christians are worried that the rise of political Islam and heightened militancy could have a disproportionate impact on already beleaguered Christian minorities – just as in Iraq over the past decade. Roughly half of Iraq’s 1 million Christians left the country, constituting at times 20 percent of Iraqi refugees though they made up only 5 percent of the overall population.

At a conference on challenges facing Arab Christians hosted by Jordan last week, more than 50 prominent Christian leaders as well as a handful of top Islamic scholars pushed for interfaith dialog to help quell rising sectarianism. They emphasized the key role Christians have played in Arab societies for 2,000 years, including well before the advent of Islam, and the danger not only to Christian individuals but to the societies as a whole if Christians were to be pushed out altogether.

“This [Christian] presence throughout these ages is [now] aced with so many challenges that shake the pillars and the foundation of Arab culture and the Christian component within it – especially with the rise in emigration, which negatively affects Arab Christians,” said Armenian Patriarch Nurhan Mannougian of Jerusalem.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, who invited the conference participants to lunch in the Royal Court, said in a short address beforehand that Jordan stands as a model of coexistence and fraternity between Muslims and Christians – not out of benevolence, but necessity.

“We also believe that the protection of the rights of Christians is a duty rather than a favor,” said the king. “Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations.”

Iraq's diaspora

In a hilly neighborhood of Amman, a final hymn wafts out of the softly lit windows of the Jesuit Fathers church as the evening breeze picks up.  After the service, dozens of Iraqi refugees file out between the simple blue chairs, touching or kissing the cross on their way out.

Among them is Mofed, who owned a photo shop in Baghdad. One day, he says, some men came to his shop and gave him three options: become Muslim; pay $70,000 as a tax levied on non-Muslims, known as jizya; or be killed along with his family.

So nine months ago he and his wife fled to Jordan, and have found refugee in this church, run by Father Raymound MoussAlli of the Chaldean Catholic church.

Androus from Mosul, Iraq, and another member of Father Raymond’s congregation, says he received a similar demand via telephone.

“Because you are infidels, you have to pay jizya,” he recalled being told over the phone. “Either you pay jizya, or we will kill you or your son.”

Mofed and Androus, together with their families, are awaiting visas, hoping to start a new life in the West.

And Syria's

In the nearby neighborhood of Germana, Ridda and Shafiqa are also waiting – to go home to Syria. They sit on a few thin mattresses and plastic chairs. A small calendar on the bare walls proclaims, “I the Lord do not change.”

Anas, their son, says he got threatening messages back in Syria: “Your money is for us to take, your wife is for us to sleep with, and your children are for killing. This is all halal,” or permissible under Islamic law. He escaped with his wife and children to Jordan, but not before his liquor store had been burned down.

Ridda, the husband, was kidnapped by rebels for a week until the Syrian Army got close, prompting the rebels to flee. He went home to Damascus to pack his bags and discovered that during his captivity, his house had been hit in a rocket attack. He packed his bags for Amman, where his family was already waiting.

They’ve been here for a year now, but are hoping to return as soon as there is security – no matter who is in power. But they are clearly concerned by the examples of other countries, where Islamist forces gained power after the secular regime was toppled.

“We see the countries in front of us – Iraq, Libya, Egypt – the Brotherhood took charge and look what happened in one year,” says Ridda. Egypt’s Copts, which comprise roughly 10 percent of Egypt’s 90 million citizens, have faced escalated kidnappings, killings, and church burnings since the 2011 uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

“If the Brotherhood took over in Syria, it would not be the same,” adds Ridda. “We would be like Lebanon, living in cantons – every sect with its own area.”

Equal rights

Indeed, one of the most pressing questions is where Christians would fit in a state that draws more heavily on Islamic law. Arab Christian leaders at last week’s conference repeatedly emphasized the need for equal citizenship rights and fear some Islamist interpretations of the concept of the ummah – a global nation of Muslims across political borders – would preclude that. “Ummah would cancel the concept of a home country and the pluralistic nature of a country,” said Gregorios III Laham, Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, in a panel on Syria.

Bishop Munib Younan of the evangelical Lutheran church in Jordan and the Holy Land encouraged his fellow Christians to “battle with political Islam and not to be afraid of it,” emphasizing the need for engagement with all Muslims not just for religious understanding but to discuss the “proper relation of religion and state.”

As both Muslims and Christians grapple with the tremendous upheaval in the region, Sheikh Ali Gomma, grand mufti emeritus of Egypt and one of four senior Muslim scholars who attended last week’s conference, condemned the attacks, church burnings, and humiliation of Christians in Egypt.

“This is a huge violation not only on the humanitarian level but on the Islamic level as well,” he said, contrasting the heightened bitterness with the calmer days of his youth, when he would play soccer with Christian boys and share food with their families. “It is incumbent upon us to eliminate this bitterness and tension which is victimizing our brethren in Egypt.”

He said Friday sermons pose a key challenge for Islamic leaders espousing better relations between Muslims and Christians. “Sometimes our Islamic colleagues would curse Christians and that would be transmitted to Christian neighbors,” he said. “Muslims need to change their Islamic discourse.”

Amid all the upheaval, the same faith that has made Christians something of a target has also provided comfort for some.

“I believe in Christ. … The peace of Jesus is in my heart,” says Athraa, the young mother of two, wearing pink Crocs and hot-pink nail polish. “Always the Bible is open. What else will give me power? The Word of God gives me power.”

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