While delivering humanitarian aid to impoverished families in Kfar Dael, a village near Aleppo, two archbishops were kidnapped by gunmen on April 22. Archbishops Boulos Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim are the most senior church leaders abducted in Syria’s civil war to date.
Syrian Christians protesting. Photo credit: Shaam News Network
The kidnapping heightens concerns amongst Syria’s Christians that a great persecution of Christians is on the horizon in the war-torn country which has now claimed some 70,000 lives. Complete cities have been nearly emptied of their Christian presence, including Homs where an estimated 60,000 Christians lived before the war. Today, only 1,000 remain.
“The armed [rebels] in Syria [have] murdered more than 200 Christians in the city of Homs, including entire families with young children. These gangs kidnapped Christians and demanded high ransoms. In two cases, after the ransoms were paid, the men's bodies were found,” a priest in Homs told Barnabas Aid.
More than 1,000 Christians have been killed in the war thus far and at least 40 churches and Christian centers have been damaged or destroyed, according to Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III Laham. “Entire villages… [have been] cleared of their Christian inhabitants,” Laham told BBC.
Christians, who have historically experienced a higher degree of freedom in Syria than in most other Middle Eastern countries, have widely chosen not to take up arms or to actively support either the rebels or President Bashar al-Assad. While many Christians have publicly denounced the brutality of the regime, they fear that an alternative government will be led by extremists who will severely persecute religious minorities.
“I am concerned if the regime is toppled, Syria will fall in to the hands of extremists. Nobody will protect the rights of the Christians. Look at what happened to the Christians in Egypt and Iraq. Christians keep losing," said Kalach, a Syrian Christian businessman, echoing the fears of many Christians.
Kalach’s fears are not unfounded. Reports indicate that Syrian Sunni jihadists who were fighting alongside al Qaeda in Iraq are returning home to use the weapon it perfected in Iraq—suicide bombings—to “restore” Syria as an “Islamic caliphate” by “redeeming” it from the rule of Assad.
“We have experience now fighting the Americans, and more experience now with the Syrian revolution,” Abu Thuha, an Al Qaeda operative, told The New York Times. “Our big hope is to form a Syrian-Iraqi Islamic state for all Muslims, and then announce our war against Iran and Israel, and free Palestine.”
“In areas under rebel control, intolerant, hard-line Sunni fundamentalism is making Muslim-Christian coexistence impossible,” Elizabeth Kendal wrote for the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin. “For the jihadists, neutrality is not an option, and Christians (and Muslims) refusing to support the jihad are being tortured, expelled and murdered.”
Christians “Cleansed” from Middle East
Many Syrian Christians fear that if war continues without resolution, the church will follow the footsteps of the great persecution of Christians occurring in Iraq where some 200 Christians were kidnapped for ransom, 900 Christians were killed, and more than 60 churches were bombed between 2003 and 2012, according to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization. Iraq’s great persecution of Christians has resulted in more than half the Christian population fleeing the country since the war’s outbreak in 2003.
It is not only Iraq and Syria where Christians are endangered, but a mass exodus of Christians has fled countries throughout the Middle East. At least 93,000 Christians have reportedly left Egypt following the country’s revolution that led to the political rise of Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. The Christian populations of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories have also significantly declined in recent years. The great persecution of Christians in the Middle East is so severe that human rights expert Ken Blackwell wrote that “Christians are being ethnically cleansed throughout the Middle East.”
Prayer and Fasting
Fearful that they will be next to experience the great persecution of Christians which has stricken the Middle East, Syrian Christians have asked ICC to help mobilize the international Christian community to stand alongside them by praying and fasting on Saturday, May 11 to “plead before the Lord for His mercy on Syria.”
Christian refugee. Photo credit: UNHCR
“Due to the dangers of traveling in combat zones, Christians will be limited to local meetings planned all across Syria during this time,” said the prayer coordinator. “These groups will be meeting in homes and churches, and will be a mix of all denominations. Christians across Syria have asked that you join them in prayer.”
Please click here for more information on how you can join the Syrian Church in prayer.