Editor's note: This story was updated after publication
The overnight release of 13 Syrian nuns in a prisoner exchange provides a rare bright spot for the country’s beleaguered Christians, who have faced increasing persecution lately.
The nuns, kidnapped by Al Qaeda-linked rebels late last year, were reportedly freed in exchange for the release of regime prisoners, although the details remain unclear.
Qatari officials as well as the Assad regime reportedly helped broker the agreement that allowed the nuns to return home to Syria early today after being kidnapped from their monastery in Maaloula, north of Damascus, in December.
But overall the situation for Syria’s Christians has deteriorated, particularly in the northern city of Raqqa, where a jihadist group recently forced local Christians to choose between converting to Islam, paying a protection tax, or being killed.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq now independent of the global terror network, presented Christians with an ultimatum in late February that included at least a dozen conditions. Among them were refraining from renovating churches, many of which have been damaged in the war, or wearing or displaying crosses and other religious symbols in public.
Some 20 Christian leaders reportedly agreed to the conditions, including payment of a twice-yearly protection tax, ranging from about $125 to $500, depending on personal income levels.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, expanded on the restrictions in the National Review late last month. “They are forbidden from reading scripture indoors loud enough for Muslims outside to hear, and the practice of their faith must be confined within the walls of their remaining churches, not exercised publicly (at, for example, funeral or wedding processions),” wrote Ms. Shea, who characterized the requirements as returning to rules attributed to the seventh-century caliphate.
The US State Department has strongly condemned such steps.
“The United States deplores continued threats against Christians and other minorities in Syria, who are increasingly targeted by extremists,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki in a March 3 press statement which specifically criticized the jihadists’ demands in Raqqa. “These outrageous conditions violate universal human rights. [ISIS] has demonstrated time and again its disregard for Syrian lives, and it continues to commit atrocities against the Syrian people. Although [ISIS] claims it is fighting the regime, its oppression of and senseless violence against Syrians ... demonstrates that it is fighting for nothing except the imposition of its own brand of tyranny.”
Some have criticized the US for not taking stronger action to try to prevent such atrocities, saying the ultimatum given to Raqaa’s Christians is but the most recent casualty of the West’s inaction.
The Israeli newspaper Haaretz wrote that Christians have become “the latest symbol of the West’s resounding failure to stop the slaughter in Syria.”
Christian exodus from Iraq
Syria’s Christians, one of numerous minorities that had enjoyed relative protection under the Assad regime, are increasingly concerned that they could face persecution on the scale of Christians in Iraq. While Iraqi Christians constituted approximately 5 percent of the pre-war population, they accounted for 15 to 18 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in neighboring countries, signaling a disproportionate exodus that left the country devoid of at least half its Christian population.
Syria's Christians represented an estimated 5 to 8 percent of the country's 22 million people before the war broke out, and the Syrian patriarch of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church recently suggested that as many as 450,000 of the 2 million Syrian refugees today are Christians. Such figures vary widely and are difficult to confirm given the volatility of the situation, but those who have fled tell of kidnappings, murders, vandalism to their shops, and pressure to convert.
"We are expecting what has happened in Iraq to happen in Syria as well," a young Syrian mother named Athraa told the Monitor last year, a few weeks after fleeing her village on the Syria-Iraq border.
Given that overall climate, it is noteworthy that the Syrian nuns, members of the Greek Orthodox denomination, reported that they were treated well by their rebel captors, and have been released unharmed.