Once a safe haven for Middle Eastern Christians, Syria has become a place where Christians are targeted for kidnapping and murder.
DAMASCUS — The Arab Spring has turned very wintry for many Christians in the Middle East.
As the Christian minority in Syria celebrates Christmas, local leaders say they feel increasingly imperiled by extremist Muslim rebels, an added threat amid a deadly civil war.
Christians and Muslims co-existed for centuries in the region, but in several countries including Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, ultra-conservative Islamic groups have launched violent attacks on minority groups in order to rally their supporters against infidels and propel themselves to power.
Extremist rebels regularly shell Christian neighborhoods in Damascus and kidnap Christians for ransom in areas under their control. GlobalPost has learned that Christians are also being kidnapped in Damascus by militias supporting Bashar al-Assad.
Some 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people are Christian, both Orthodox and Catholic. Each Christian faith has its own story.
“It’s more difficult for us to carry this cross.”
~Bishop Armash Nalbandian
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Armenian Christians fled to Syria after the Ottoman Turkish genocide of 1915. For them, the current civil war is a double tragedy. About one-third of the pre-war Armenian population of 120,000 has left the country as refugees, according to Bishop Armash Nalbandian of the Armenian Orthodox Church.
Armenians had created a new life in Syria after 1915, establishing schools, businesses and churches. “After 95 years we are suffering” again, said the bishop. “It’s more difficult for us to carry this cross.”
Christians also face attack because of their politics, according to Father Simon Faddul, director of the Catholic charity Caritas in Lebanon.
He explained that some of the Christian refugees in Lebanon are Syrian government employees. Others may be related to Syrian soldiers or members of the intelligence services. So they face persecution because of their pro-government views.
“They live in continuous fear,” said Father Faddul. “Christians have paid in blood.”
And sometimes they pay in cash.
Recently, a 20-year-old Christian student was kidnapped in broad daylight in front of his university in Damascus.
His father got a call demanding a huge ransom in US dollars, said the student’s uncle, Hagop, a university professor and regime supporter who asked that only his first name be used. “They think the Christians are all rich.”
In recent months, dozens of Christians have been kidnapped for ransom in Damascus, according to Hagop and other Christian leaders. Christians are perceived to be more prosperous than the majority Sunni Muslims. They had felt relatively secure in the largely secular society established by the regime of Bashar al-Assad and by his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled for decades before him.
The 20-year-old boy’s family was finally able to negotiate a deal and the student was released, according to Hagop. The family never discovered the identity of the kidnappers. Hagop said they could have been anti-government rebels or common criminals. Rebels regularly kidnap civilians in areas under their control, according to Human Rights Watch.
“But most frighteningly, we suspect some kidnappings are carried out by the Popular Committees,” he said.
The committees are a pro-government militia, which were incorporated into the National Defense Force late last year. Militia members receive a salary, uniforms and arms from the government.
“How could a rebel group infiltrate secure areas of Damascus, kidnap someone in front of the university and then take him through all the checkpoints to an area they control?” asked Hagop. “No, it has to be someone on the inside.”
Christians feel squeezed by the lawlessness from both sides. But most Christians fear extremist rebels more than the government.
“The guarantee of security of minorities is to have good functional government, a strong government,” said Bishop Nalbandian. “This security we experienced and saw with the government of President Bashar al-Assad.”
When the Syrian uprising began in 2011, many Christians sympathized with the calls for democracy but worried about the growth of Islamic extremists, many of whom saw Christians as infidels. Bishop Nalbandian said in the first few months, Christians hoped the government would make significant reforms through meaningful dialogue with the opposition.
“Unfortunately, the government lost this moment, or couldn’t or didn’t use this moment,” he explained. “The government did some reforms according
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