Thousands of Christians are fleeing from the violence in war-torn Iraq to Syria, but their new home also holds “ruthless” positions against Christianity which range from life in prison for talking about your beliefs to death for a Muslim who converts, according to ministries working there.

“It’s better than Iraq, but it’s no bed of roses there for sure,” Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Freedom International, told WND. “The Christians (there) are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

While Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other Middle East nations are well-known for persecuting Christians, Syria’s actions are of a lower profile. But it is listed among those nations around the world that persecute Christians by everyone from Jacobson’s organization to the U.S. government.

In Syria, the constitution requires the president to be a Muslim and specifies that Islamic jurisprudence is a principal source of legislation. And sharing your Christian faith with someone – anyone – is discouraged as “posing a threat to the relations among religious groups” and carries a penalty of up to life in prison, he said.

“For Christians, one of the core tenets is the ability to share your faith, but in Syria that can lead to arrest (and) persecution,” Jacobson said. “We list Syria as one of the top … countries where Christians are facing real persecution.”

“Syria isn’t Saudi Arabia, but it’s one of the big untold stories out there,” he said. For those who want to convert from Islam to Christianity, “you’re disowned by your family, if the local mosque issues a death threat, no one is going to do anything about it, you’ll just end up dead. Nothing is done, no police action, that’s just understood.

“If you convert you’d better leave the country,” he said.

For those who already are Christian, the government allows them to practice their religion – but within harsh and restrictive guidelines. A Christian is not allowed to proselytize – ever. And churches that want to hold an extra service must get a government permit. Sermons are routinely monitored, as is church fundraising.

He said the issue for Iraqi Christians is the choice of being dead soon in Iraq, or taking your chance in Syria and so they are flooding into Syria. An Iraqi population of Christians estimated at 1.2 million before the war now is holding around 500,000, he said, with a good many traveling to Syria.

The status of Christianity in Syria reached the headlines recently as Pastor Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life,” visited there and was quoted by Syrian media describing it as a “moderate” nation.

Warren also said in a video that was posted briefly on the Internet that Syria is a “moderate” nation, although the video was pulled when he was asked about the comment, and he has denied making those recordings.

The audio from that video, however, was captured and can be heard here:

Listen to Rick Warren talk about Syria:

According to SANA, the Syrian government news service, Warren said “many Americans don’t realize that both Christianity and Judaism are legal in Syria. In addition, the government provides free electricity and water to all churches; allows pastors to purchase a car tax-free (a tax break not given to Muslim imams); appoints pastors as Christian judges to handle Christian cases; and allows Christians to create their own civil law instead of having to follow Muslim law.”

Others, however, noted that his praise for Syria wasn’t proper.

“It’s a tragic, tragic, tragic situation. We’re very concerned about the future of Christians in the region. When people are choosing to go to Syria, which certainly is no friend of Christians at all, it’s a pretty bad situation,” said Jacobson.

He said one project his organization has been developing is to encourage the United States and other nations to be willing to accept as refugees many of those fleeing Iraq, Syria and other Mideast nations.

“If you’re going to a place like Syria, it’s really because you’ve got no place to go,” he said.

He said the government in Syria uses a lot of “window dressing” such as formal recognitions of Easter and Christmas and the like, to give the impression of an open and tolerant atmosphere.

However, that’s common from a lot of the “brutal regimes” whose agendas include the destruction of Christians. For example, North Korea offers tours of “Christian” churches operating within its borders.

“The treatment on the ground is far different,” Jacobson said. “If you’re a Christian, you don’t talk about it. If you try to share your faith, distribute Christian literature, distribute a Bible – something any religion should be allowed to do – you’re going to get arrested and asked to leave the country. You can’t do that there.”

A number of reports put the population of Syria at about 18 million, with the Christian population at about 10 percent of that. A report in The Guardian estimated 350,000 Christians have fled Iraq for Syria, and they now are living with extended families in one-room apartments on leftover savings or charity.

“Few would deny that Syria has much to reform,” that report said. “It is a one-party … state, where political activists are suppressed and an extensive network of secret police fills the prisons with political prisoners.”

Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors USA and other Christian ministries work with persecuted Christians, but they primarily provide aid. Christian Freedom International combines aid with advocacy, publicizing bad situations, documenting cases and presenting the information to policymakers considering trade, aid, visa and other issues.

It works with local churches – including underground house church networks and Christian cell groups in nations where public Christian worship isn’t allowed – as well as mission groups and Christian church denominations.

“These courageous Christians share our passion of assisting the part of the Body that is suffering. They work with us to provide medicine, safe-houses, aid, Bibles, education, documentation, and advocacy to Christians and their families who are on the front lines of persecution,” the organization said. “Because they risk arrest, imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom for their work with us, we are careful to protect their identity and details of our work in their country.”

The needs range from basic shelter and food and water to medicines, Bibles and other resources. “In Burma hundreds of … Christians facing genocidal persecution are in need of emergency medical care each month and yet we have had to cut back on some of our operations there because of lack of funds. CFI turns down two out of three requests for emergency help due to lack of funds.”

The group International Christian Concern said Syria has some of the same characteristics – regarding its treatment of Christians – as North Korea, Vietnam, Egypt and China.

And a special report from The Voice of the Martyrs listed Syria among three dozen or more nations where Christians face “arrest, imprisonment, physical torture and death.”

“In this secular state, Muslims are still given preferential treatment in many areas of society. The Emergency Law of 1963 allows authorities to conduct ‘preventative’ arrests and hold detainees without any legal safeguards. Christians find it difficult to spread the gospel freely under such conditions. Missionaries are not allows visas, so Christians are able to exhibit their faith only in professional and informal friendship settings,” the report said.

A U.S. government report from this fall said activities of religious groups are monitored, and all religious groups must register with the government, which also monitors fundraising.

“During the reporting period the government sometimes encouraged negative – even violent – expressions of Islamic religious sentiment, at least in part of curry favor with the Syrian Sunni majority. The clearest example of this occurred on Feb. 4, 2006, when the government allowed Muslim groups to demonstrate publicly against the publication of cartoons, and later failed to control a mob of several thousand Muslim protesters that attacked and set fire to the building housing the Danish, Swedish, and Chilean embassies, and later set fire to the Norwegian Embassy.”

The state-owned newspapers promote Islam and Syrian state radio also broadcasts dawn, noon and afternoon Muslim prayers, according to the U.S. report, and the president has decreed the establishment of a Sharia law faculty at Aleppo University. All citizens are subject to Islamic religious law regarding child custody, inheritance and adoption.

WORLD Magazine cited the case of Samer, a Jordanian Christian, who was jailed in Syria for 50 days with no notification of the nature of his “crimes.” He later was released from the Syrian court system and moved to the United States.

“I want [people] to understand that there is a false image of Islam as a religion of peace and compassion. Many countries of the Middle East have a good image here in the U.S., but their rules are not what Americans think … When [Islamic countries] talk about human rights and freedom, it’s not true – unless you remain in Islam,” he said.

Christian Solidarity International-USA also noted that “the historical process of Islamization has transformed Syria’s once thriving Christian majority into a small frightened community. Its existence is under threat. Syrian’s Baath Party dictatorship is not as violent in its persecution of Christians as some other regimes and extremist Islamist movements in the region. Yet, the odds are stacked against the country’s intimidated Christians.”

CSI spokesman Father Keith Roderick said Syria is a totalitarian state, and the Christian freedoms, or lack thereof, reflect that. “There are restrictions. It’s not a free society, therefore religious express is not as free at it should be,” he said.

He said one particular concern was Christian schools, which are required by law to have a Muslim principal. “It’s a police state. Of course there are problems,” he told WND.

He said the fact that Syria has become what appears to be a “home base” for a number of terrorist organizations also is a “destabilizing factor.”

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