WASHINGTON – The first delegation of Syrian Christian church leaders to visit the U.S. since civil war broke out in March 2011 spoke Monday at the Heritage Foundation, issuing a stunning warning that the nation’s Christian population could vanish.
“Today we are faced with a potential extinction of the church,” Patrick Sookhdeo, chairman of the Westminster Institute, warned. “Not just in Syria. We’ve seen it in Iraq. The church could fall in Lebanon.”
The panel discussion, “Marked for Destruction: The Plight of Syria’s Christians,” featured Syrian Christian leaders Rev. Adib Awad, the general secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon; H.E. Bishop Elias Toumeh, Orthodox bishop of Pyrgou-Syria; Rev. Riad Jarjour, former general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches; H.E. Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak of the Syrian Orthodox Church; Bishop Armash Nalbandian of the Armenian Church of Damascus, and Bishop Julian Dobbs.
Dobbs said Syria “used to be one of the easiest places in the Arab world to be a Christian across the Middle East.
“The church has existed there since biblical times,” he said. “Christians were respected by the Muslim majority and were able to practice their faith with little interference. But, this has largely changed since the civil war broke out.”
He described the persecution Christian Syrians have faced since the conflict erupted, and he criticized the West for largely ignoring their plight.
“Christians in their homelands have been attacked and invaded, houses have been ransacked, Christians have been kidnapped for ransom and brutally murdered,” Dobbs said. “Yet much of the Western World, the church, the media have remained silent about this situation.”
According to reports, there were more than 1,200 Christian martyrs in Syria in 2013 alone, while tens of thousands have been displaced.
Jarjour took to the podium to explain the plight of Christians still in Syria.
“Our Christian community is a broken community; it’s a suffering community. We have thousands and thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) not in their homes, not knowing what to do,” he said.
The delegation was hosted by the Westminster Institute and Barnabas Aid, a group that gives aid to oppressed Christians worldwide.
Kawak spoke of the horrific risk church leaders face in Syria particularly. He said the kidnapping of 12 Orthodox nuns, bishops and a priest by Syrian rebels “instilled fear in the hearts of Christian leaders” in Syria.
All speakers ultimately warned of the dangers of persecuted Christians fleeing Syria and leaving it as a nation with virtually no Christian population, drawing parallels to Iraq.
Awad noted that prior to the Iraq war, the Christian population in Iraq was 5 percent of the population, with more than 1.5 million. Now, just a decade later, there are as few as 400,000.
“Due to persecution, due to pressures, due to killings, we are all together less than 20 percent of the Syrian population,” Awad said.
Adib commented on the title of the discussion, “Marked for Destruction,” saying: “We can accept being marked for destruction if it’s by our Lord. But we will not accept it if it is by terrorist, whether Saudis, or from Qatar or any other nation.”
Sookhdeo urged the Western media to stop turning a blind eye to the plight of Christians in Syria.
“We plead for your media to break the silence,” Sookhdeo said. “Why is it that the media of the Western world choose not the address what happens to the minorities? Whether it being Shiites or Sunnis or moderate Muslims or Christians that are being butchered?”
The lecture coincided with United Nations-hosted peace talks on the conflict in Syria in Geneva. According to reports, the talks appeared to be in deadlock Monday.
The talks in Geneva are being overseen by U.N. special envoy to Syria Lakdar Brahimi, who told reporters on Monday that the talks “haven’t produced much.”