Features

Caught in the middle

"Caught in the middle" Continued...

Issue: "Medical care circus," Feb. 25, 2012

But fleeing the country isn't an option for most. Indeed, Christians from other Middle Eastern countries have fled to Syria in recent years to escape persecution. An estimated 100,000 Iraqi Christians have taken refuge in Syria since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The Syrian Christian community has ancient roots and comprises between 6 percent and 10 percent of the country's population-a significant number in a country of about 20 million. Despite their minority status, Christians have enjoyed some measures of security under Assad's reign, with some working in government or police positions.

That security now makes them an open target. Opposition forces that protest Assad-a ruler who has undoubtedly exercised oppression and brutality during his reign-are targeting Syrians they deem sympathetic to his rule, including Christians.

The Christian advocacy group Open Doors USA reported in December that Syrian Christians are increasingly afraid to leave their homes. Like other groups caught in sectarian crossfire, Christians are worried about increasing violence and a growing criminality during the country's chaos. An Open Doors field worker in Syria told the group that radical Sunni Muslims had raided and robbed several churches.

The worker also reported that several Muslim taxi drivers vowed to harm all women customers who are unveiled: "These women, mostly less orthodox Muslims and Christians, are being kidnapped, raped, or even killed."

Virginia-based Jubilee Campaign also reports that Syrian protesters are targeting Christians: "The culmination of these protests end in raids on Christian communities to take women from their homes and families and rape them."

Greg Treat of the Jubilee Campaign elaborated, saying that sources say extremists appear on Syrian television encouraging Muslims to kill Christian women: "The tone of the [Muslim] discussion isn't whether we have the right to oppress these people, but whether we should allow them to live or not."

During the same week, the UK-based Barnabas Fund reported that a reliable source in Syria estimated that at least 100 Christians had been killed since protests began in the country last year. The source told Barnabas Fund about two incidents since Christmas. Rebels kidnapped two Christian men, ages 28 and 37, in separate attacks, according to the report: "The first was found hanged with numerous injuries, the second was cut into pieces and thrown in a river. Four more have been abducted, and their captors are threatening to kill them too."

The violence against minority groups leads some Christians to question America's unalloyed support for rebels during the chaos. Treat of the Jubilee Campaign said one Christian source was "very, very frustrated by the way that the West is unquestioningly backing the rebels-the legitimacy being given to them just appalled him."

Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Fund agrees that the United States should examine reports of opposition abuses against minority groups. He says the United States should also examine the consistency of its Middle Eastern policy. For example, while U.S. officials call for Assad's ouster in Syria based on humanitarian crimes, they have said far less about human-rights abuses and oppression in places like Saudi Arabia.

That's because Saudi Arabia is a key ally in the region, including an ally against the Iranian regime. Still, when watchdog group Freedom House rated the political and civil freedoms in countries around the world earlier this year, two nations earned the group's worst possible ratings: Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Sookhdeo fears the United States is being drawn into a regional conflict that pits Sunni Muslims in countries like Saudi Arabia against Shia regimes like Iran and Syria. Even if Sunnis win that conflict, Sookhdeo says the outcome would be grim: "They will be utterly iniquitous because they are not based on principles we accept. And this is something the U.S. is not addressing."

Elizabeth Kendal agrees. The religious freedom expert and author of the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin says that Western governments fail to understand that liberty alone won't reform governments. She says the belief that if populations simply achieve freedom they will choose good over evil isn't true: "The Bible explains this by telling us that mankind is fallen and drawn towards sin and selfishness. Liberty without God can be pure anarchy."

In Syria, Christians and other groups wait to see if anarchy will prevail in the worsening conditions in their country, and if they'll still have a place in a society that may reject them. Kurt Werthmuller of the Hudson Institute says that the prospect of Christians fleeing Syria and the Middle East is a "looming crisis" and a tragedy for the region: "They've been a part of Middle Eastern society for as long as they've been around, and to lose that is not just a sad thing, but part of a real breakdown of social order."

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