Church leaders in Syria are expressing dismay at the large number of Christians who are fleeing the country under the threat of Muslim jihadists linked to al-Qaida who are trying to overthrow the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
The flight of Christians is a rerun of Iraq a decade ago, when Saddam Hussein was removed from power, and will similarly change the character of the region, the church leaders say.
Father Nicola Antiba and his Chaldean Catholic counterpart Pope Raphael Sako both issued statements decrying conditions forcing Syria’s Christians to leave their native country.
Neither Syrian Christian leader could be reached for comment.
Western human rights groups report that the pressure on Syrian Christians to leave their homeland is becoming intense. International Christian Concern Middle East analyst Todd Daniels says Syria’s Christians live with daily threats.
“For many of them the immediate threats have forced them to leave as they are being threatened by opposition groups who have taken over the villages,” Daniels said.
Daniels said a Syrian church leader told him recently of how rebels came into a village and began calling out names using the loudspeakers of the mosques. The Christians were given 48 hours to leave.
“We are continuing to hear stories from Syria of forced conversions or killings by those who did not convert,” he said. “It is these existential threats that are leading Christians to flee.”
Open Doors USA spokesman Jerry Dykstra confirmed that the Syrian bishops have a reason for concern.
“Over 2 million people, many of them Christians, have been forced to flee the country. Many of them are in refugee camps along the borders with such countries as Turkey and Lebanon,” Dykstra said.
Dykstra noted that Christians used to make up 8 percent of Syria.
But he noted the targeting of Christians in the Middle East is nothing new. He cited a Pew report said that in the 20th century, Christians once made up 20 percent of the region’s population. Now it is an estimated 4 percent.
An Assyrian Christian living in the United States who asked not to be identified to protect his family still living in Syria says the media is not giving Americans a true picture of what is happening to Christians.
The inaccurate reports, he said, mean that Americans are unaware of the level of suffering of the Syrian Christians.
Dykstra said many of the rebels “are jihadists who target Christians through threats, kidnappings, rape and even murder.”
Those who leave the country face the further problem of finding refuge.
He cited a USCIRF report in July by the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that showed Christians are dramatically underrepresented in the refugee camps.
Daniels explained that Christians are not registering as Christians in the camps, because they fear they will be targeted by the opposition.
“They also fear that if Assad does stay in power they will be viewed as disloyal, making it more difficult for them in the future,” he said. “We have been speaking with contacts who have been there on the ground in the midst of this. It is a really harsh situation.”
WND reported in July 2012 that Christians in Syria preferred Assad over a jihadist regime.
“They are not fans of Assad, but what they see if he were to go scares them far worse,” he explained. “They see Islamic extremists who have a stated goal of eliminating Christians from their society and so this existential threat outweighs the repression of rights they had under Assad.”
The Assyrian Christian agreed, saying Syrian Christians will have every reason to flee if the rebels take control.
“It’s true 100 percent. The Assad regime is tyrannical. But who is not in the entire Middle East except Lebanon and Israel?”
Daniels said an estimated 25,000 Syrian Christians have fled to Lebanon.
Lebanon, with its large Christian minority, is one of the more logical destinations, he said, but it is not able to accommodate all of them.
Daniels said he has heard, nevertheless, that “the church leaders there are very ready to receive them and assist however they can.”
Hundreds more have also gone to Turkey.
“Despite the government arranging a camp in Midyet specifically for Christians, they have refused to enter it, as they view it as simply an open-air prison,” Daniels said.
Consequently, he said, many have attempted to find housing and work in Turkish cities such as Mardin, Midyet and Gaziantep.
“The Turkish church is not as numerous or stable as that in Lebanon, and they are having a greater difficulty in assisting them,” he said. “ICC is actively working with partners in these surrounding countries to provide assistance to Christians who have fled.”
Another tragic aspect of the story is that Syria’s Christian population includes some of the Christians who fled Iraq.
“They are searching for a place of refuge, and their options are limited,” Daniels said.
After the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, he noted, an estimated 1.8 million of the country’s Christians fled to Syria.
“The increasing Islamic nature of politics and society left them no room in Iraq, and Syria was seen as a safe haven. That is no longer the case,” Daniels said.
Daniels noted that Christians are fleeing the region that gave birth to Christianity, and Damascus itself has one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
“There are churches and monasteries that date back 1,500 years that have been defaced and destroyed,” he said.
Daniels said the flight of the Christian community “is the loss of a moderating voice in the conflict as well, and so their loss is very significant.”
Dykstra urged Christians in the West “to wake up to the reality that perhaps in their lifetime there will be almost no Christians left in the Middle East.”
He wonders about the level of interest American Christians have in their Middle Eastern brothers and sisters.
“Do we care enough to help stop the forced exodus by Muslim extremists?” Dykstra asked.
He said American Christians can help by at least praying for Syrian Christians.
He said Christians in the West have an opportunity to make a difference by holding an International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church observance in their homes, schools, churches or small groups on Nov. 3.