Cover Story

Turning Syria inside out

"Turning Syria inside out" Continued...

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

At the same time, the Syriac group opposes special asylum status for Syrian Christians to take refuge in the United States or elsewhere. Ishak believes the push to allow Christians to leave Syria is part of the Islamist groups’ religious cleansing agenda. “Our ancestors have lived there for thousands of years. This is a new form of invasion to us,” he said.

Granting a higher profile to Christian and other minority groups, the United States could find common ground with an otherwise foe on Syria: Russia. 

Russian Orthodox Church leaders are pressing Moscow to do more to support Syria’s Christians, according to Lauren Homer, who heads an international law firm in Washington with extensive work on religious liberty cases in Russia and the Middle East. 

Agreement on protecting minorities can be the start of a political solution, said Homer, and U.S. officials indicated it was a point of discussion in Secretary of State John Kerry’s May visit to Moscow.

For now, a negotiated political solution is opposed by many in Congress and by analysts who call for a “military transition government.” But any military solution, or military aid, is likely to involve Saudi-backed and other jihadist groups. 

“We made huge strategic mistakes by allowing Islamist groups to be set up in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Homer. “If that happens in Syria it will become an Islamic state. Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel will have myriad new problems, if they can continue to exist.”

And Syria’s Christians, and their heritage, also will be threatened with extinction.

MOST DANGEROUS: Three men from the radical Islamist group al-Nusra in one of their headquarters in Syria.
Benjamin Hiller/Corbis
MOST DANGEROUS: Three men from the radical Islamist group al-Nusra in one of their headquarters in Syria.
DISPLACED: Syrians flee after Syrian aircraft bombed the strategic border town of Ras al-Ayn in November.
Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
DISPLACED: Syrians flee after Syrian aircraft bombed the strategic border town of Ras al-Ayn in November.
SURVIVING: Syrian couple Michael Oberi, 53, and Sarbi Magarian, 51, sit in their room in a Christian retirement home in Aleppo. They have no electricity or telephone lines, and little idea of what’s happening in the outside world.
JM Lopez/AFP/Getty Images
SURVIVING: Syrian couple Michael Oberi, 53, and Sarbi Magarian, 51, sit in their room in a Christian retirement home in Aleppo. They have no electricity or telephone lines, and little idea of what’s happening in the outside world.

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Video of Al-Nusra targeting residents in Damascus:

The other side

Many Christians prefer Assad-led stability to rebel chaos

TARGET: The Armenian St. George Church in Aleppo after it was burned during fighting between rebel fighters and Syrian government forces last October.
Stringer/AFP/Getty Images
TARGET: The Armenian St. George Church in Aleppo after it was burned during fighting between rebel fighters and Syrian government forces last October.

Not all Syrian Christians believe, as Bassam Ishak does, in engaging the political process to oppose President Bashar al-Assad. Behind the brutality of Assad’s regime and his father Hafez, Christians found a level of freedom and protection. Assad himself is a minority, an Alawite, and has cracked down on Islamic extremists who persecute Christians elsewhere in the Middle East.

Many Christians also don’t believe loyal Syrians in the opposition who want democracy can prevail against outside jihadist factions. “Politically the rebels and regime opponents want good for average Syrians,” said one Christian in Aleppo, not named for security reasons. “Practically and logically, if you want something good for your family or relatives, you should first show it and practice it, not come with guns and rockets to say that you love me and are interested for my good life and future.”

Christians stand to suffer inordinately among Syria’s many ethnic and religious groups, with untallied deaths and displacements of up to half the population in Hasaka province and elsewhere, and particularly in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

Many Christian leaders have been kidnapped, mostly by rebels, and a leading Greek Orthodox priest was killed outside Damascus (while trying to secure the release of a kidnap victim). 

In April two leading clergymen in Aleppo–Greek Orthodox archbishop Boulos Yazigi and Syrian Orthodox archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim—were kidnapped and are still believed held by rebels. They were on a mission to gain the release of other Christians also captured by rebela. Christians find themselves “in a very unique and frightening” situation, said Aidan Clay, Middle East analyst for International Christian Concern, when they don’t openly support either rebel groups or the Assad regime.

“While many Christians have publicly denounced the brutality of President Assad and by no means support the regime, most Christians see little hope in an alternative government which, they fear, will be led by Islamists,” Clay said. 

In Aleppo—with nearly a quarter of its population Christian—rebel forces have particularly targeted Christian enclaves. Those areas for months have been without electricity, telephone and other services. Hospitals mostly run by Christians in the city have been shelled. Regular mortar fire continued into May—damaging Christian homes, killing dozens, including Christians who came to Aleppo after losing their homes to rebels fighting in surrounding villages. 

Despite the dangers, Christians in 11 cities, including Aleppo, Damascus, and in Hasaka, gathered on May 11 for a special day of prayer. Turnout was significant, despite thunderstorms and rocket fire that preceded the services—and for the first time brought together believers across many denominations.

“I am not sure how long those ‘good guys’ [opposition groups] will keep dealing with the American regime. I am sure one day the Lord will hear our voices and prayers,” said the Aleppo resident. —M.B.

Syria’s humanitarian crisis and the aid groups helping

Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Associated Press/Photo by Burhan Ozbilici
Syrian refugees in Turkey.

The number of Syrians who have fled their homes seeking safety elsewhere is reaching nearly a quarter of the country’s population. More than 5 million are displaced, reported UN emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos in May. In some areas—including many neighborhoods in the largest city, Aleppo—more Syrians have left than remain behind.

The UN estimates 1.3 million have sought refuge in other countries, and as many as 4 million have been forcibly relocated inside the country. Reports abound of Syrian families, particularly in Hasaka province and other areas of the north, leaving villages under attack by jihadist militants for “safety” in larger towns—only to be victims of rocket and mortar attacks there, as fighting grows between government and rebel forces.

Delivering aid within the country is very risky business. Between Damascus and Aleppo (a distance of about 190 miles) are 50 checkpoints, according to Amos: “We can’t do business this way.”

Outside the country, Turkey has set up 17 camps for refugees along its border with Syria (at a cost of $700 million). Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq all have established refugee camps where the UN is registering arriving refugees and some aid groups have programs to assist them. Groups working in the camps and in other ways to aid Syrians include:

These organizations’ websites provide detailed information on their work with Syrians. The UN news outlet Irin News and UNICEF also post regular updates helpful to those who want to help. But Amos pointed out the biggest necessity: “What we need is an end to the violence.” —M.B, with reporting by Amy Derrick

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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