Cover Story

Staying the course

"Staying the course" Continued...

Issue: "2013 Daniel of the Year," Dec. 14, 2013

On Monday the ISIS and six other Islamist rebel groups announced a new call to arms against Aleppo “to face off against the enemy which is attacking Islamic territory.” Those with a valid excuse not to fight, it said in a statement, “must supply weapons and money.”

As jihadist groups have taken control of the rebel onslaught in and around Aleppo, life for Christians has become, if possible, more hellish. YouTube videos show Christians forcibly converted to Islam, and kidnappings and rapes are prevalent. Attacks on Christian villages include reports of beheadings and dismemberments, even of young children. In recent weeks rebels have targeted Christian schools in Aleppo and elsewhere. An attack on an Armenian school in Damascus on Nov. 11 left six elementary students dead.

DECIMATED: The interior of a church in Judeida, damaged by mortar shell in February. Judeida and its neighbors, Yacobiyeh and Quniya, were some of the first Christian villages to be taken by the rebel Syrian army. The rebels stormed these hilltop villages in late January after the government used them as a base to shell nearby rebel-controlled areas.
Hussein Malla/AP
DECIMATED: The interior of a church in Judeida, damaged by mortar shell in February. Judeida and its neighbors, Yacobiyeh and Quniya, were some of the first Christian villages to be taken by the rebel Syrian army. The rebels stormed these hilltop villages in late January after the government used them as a base to shell nearby rebel-controlled areas.

Over 100,000 civilians have been killed since 2011. About 2 million Syrians have been forced to leave their country and another 5 million are displaced but still living in Syria. Those high numbers overshadow another statistic: the uncounted number of Syrians who choose to stay.

For Christians the stakes are not only to preserve a homeland but also to preserve Christianity in the land of its birth and early flourishing. Even as the desperation of Islamist groups fighting the government has intensified attacks, these believers remain determined: “It’s important for us as Christians to be alive in the original lands of our fathers,” said Audo. “And not only for us but for the church in the world.”

“We as Middle Easterners don’t want our Christian churches to empty,” said Dativ Michaelian, a priest in Aleppo’s Armenian Orthodox church. Other Christians—doctors, teachers, hotel operators, and business owners—say the same. Many have lost their livelihoods due to a civil war they never wanted, but are fighting on by holding on—fearing the war less than they fear an Islamist future, a future where Christianity is banished from public life. With Bishop Antoine Audo, these Syrian Christians are WORLD’s 2013 Daniels of the Year.

THE FREE SYRIAN ARMY and affiliated rebel groups moved into Aleppo—about 7,000 fighters—in February 2012. Islamic fighters, most experienced in creating insurgency in Iraq, have overwhelmed their ranks.

Abu Omar is one such fighter. An Iraqi national, he was among hundreds freed when al-Qaeda militants staged a jailbreak at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in July. Quickly recruited to fight in Syria, Omar made his way there via Turkey, linking up with ISIS leaders who gave him a cellphone and $10,000, “meant for the mujahideen of Syria.”

In September Omar told reporters with Foreign Policy he considers jihad against the unbelievers (e.g., Christians) in Syria “holier” than jihad in Iraq. “The Quran and the hadiths already predicted that Satan will be defeated in Damascus,” he said.

Foreign jihadists like Omar are bringing grisly determination against an also-determined President Bashar al-Assad and government forces. Rebel forces claim to hold about 35-40 percent of Aleppo, but the government in recent weeks has retaken some areas. The fighting has brought important industries, like pharmaceuticals, to a standstill. And it’s destroyed areas of the Old City, whose gates and Crusader-era Citadel are World Heritage sites. More importantly, it’s an area where Christians, Muslims, Kurds, and others over centuries of conflict, had found a way to live side by side.

TARGETING CHILDREN: Men carry the coffin of one of six children from a Christian school in Damascus killed when a mortar round hit their school bus.
AP
TARGETING CHILDREN: Men carry the coffin of one of six children from a Christian school in Damascus killed when a mortar round hit their school bus.

AND THE LORD GOD planted a garden in Eden, in the east.”

The Scriptures speak of four rivers that watered the Garden of Eden, but we can locate only the Tigris and Euphrates. They poured down from the Taurus Mountains of modern-day Turkey into Syria and Iraq, and likely watered the ground from which God drew mud to form a man. In the cuneiform of the Sumerians and in Hebrew, he was called Adam, meaning “ground” or “earth.”

Adam lived only for a time in the garden, but the civilizations that grew in the fertile plains of the Tigris-Euphrates river system—the Sumerians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Babylonians—drove the earliest development of cities and empires.

These were landlocked people obsessed with water. The Chaldeans were skillful shipbuilders “and exulted in their ships,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. The Assyrians depicted a river and vessels in all the bas-reliefs discovered at Nimrud, modern-day Mosul in northern Iraq.

By the time Terah the father of Abram took his family “from Ur of the Chaldeans” on a journey to the land of Canaan, it was sensible to travel along a network of canals and cities that grew up in the Tigris-Euphrates valley rather than make a direct trek across the desert. They headed north and then south along what would become known as the Fertile Crescent.

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