Caught in the middle: Christians suffer amid Syria’s civil war

Joseph Eid / AFP – Getty
Saint Elie Church, seen her on Aug.1, was damaged during the clashes between Syrian regime forces and rebel fighters in the city of Qusayr, in Syria’s central Homs province.

By Ammar Cheikhomar and Henry Austin, NBC News

St. Paul found God on the road to Damascus and St. Peter is said to have preached there, but now one of the world’s oldest Christian communities is caught in the middle of Syria’s bloody civil war.

Distrustful of President Bashar Assad’s regime, many of Syria’s 2 million Christians also feel threatened by the increasing number of al Qaeda extremists boosting the ranks of rebel forces.

Before the two-year conflict — which the United Nations estimates has claimed more than 100,000 lives — Christians made up about 10 percent of Syria’s population.

Many Christians feel that neither Assad nor the rebels represent their interests and tens of thousands have now fled to neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.

George, a 51-year-old former car dealer who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said he originally supported Assad’s opponents, but that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) let him down once they took charge in Aleppo.

“When I saw Bashar’s forces killing, beating and torturing Syrian citizens I was standing with the FSA,” he said. “But when I saw that a lot of the Free Syrian Army doing the same I changed my position again. The FSA killed a lot of Syrian soldiers and civilians inside their prisons without enough evidence.”

George, who fled the country three months ago with his wife Helena and their children for the coastal city of Mersin in Turkey, added that he was concerned by the rise of Islamist extremist groups in his homeland.

Joseph Eid / AFP – Getty Images, file

A picture taken on August 1, 2013 shows desecrated icons partially burnt at Saint Elie Church in the city of Qusayr, in Syria’s central Homs province.

“They do not only pose a threat to the regime,” he said. “The also pose a threat to the FSA and all other minorities.”

George’s wife Helena said her priorities were returning to Aleppo with her family and having a safe life.

She added: “Damn you, Bashar and the opposition. How do you want me to stand with one of them when I lost my home because of them?”

Many religions including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church have followers in Syria.

 “The Christian presence [in Syria] extends literally into Biblical times,” said Father Michael Ellias, a priest at St Mary’s Antiochan Church in Bay Ridge, New York. “We read that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in the [ancient Syrian] town of Antioch. So our presence literally goes to the very foundations of the faith.”

While the community has largely remained neutral throughout the conflict, that hasn’t stopped Christians from being targeted.

In April, two Syriac Orthodox bishops were kidnapped by gunmen. They were later released unharmed. Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need has accused al Qaeda-linked groups of engaging in the “ethnic cleansing” of Christians.

“If you’re a Christian, you’re worried,” said Dr Nadim Shehadi, an associate at London-based think tank Chatham House. “The Christians have maintained a neutrality which can be seen as being on the side of the regime or vice versa.”

He added that they had kept a much lower profile since Islamist extremists started to appear in the country.

Amjad Hadad is one of the few Christians to take up arms. The 37-year-old said Christian silence should not be interpreted as support for Assad.

“We are fighting beside our Sunni brothers, Alewites, Shiites , Jews and Druze, and all other sects and minorities against the Syrian regime,” said Hadad, the commander of a Christian batallion of the FSA. “It‘s our duty.”

He added: “We are part of the Syrian people, we shared with these people joy and happiness and beautiful days and now we must share with them in these difficult days.”

Farouk al-Halabi

A Christian woman in the Mar Elias home for the elderly near the front line in Aleppo, Syria.

However, many others have fled their homes instead of fighting.

Todd Daniels, regional manager for the Middle East for the non-denominational watchdog International Christian Concern, last week met with many Syrians who had escaped to Turkey. He said many were frightened to go to refugee camps, even after fleeing across the border.

“They are scared of being identified as Christians, because they fear violence against them,” he said. “The Turkish government opened a camp with a partition for Christians, but as of two weeks ago there wasn’t a single Christian in there, because of that fear.”

He added that some refugees had sought refuge in churches and many were trying to rent apartments on their own as they try to avoid persecution.

However, others have been unwilling or unable to leave — like those in the Mar Elias home for the elderly near the front line in Aleppo — a city where some of the fiercest fighting has taken place.

Situated in an area controlled by the FSA, many of the senior citizens have been cut off from their families who live in regime-held parts of the city.

Abu Yussef, a Muslim who guards the home, said his group secured food for its residents, made sure they could get to church every Sunday and had warned both their fighters and members of the community not to inconvenience them.

“I feel like we are one family,” he said. “There is something magical connecting me with the elderly house and its residents.”

But despite such efforts, others expressed fears about returning to their homeland.

Dr. Talal al-Abdullah is a member of the Syrian National Council who left for Turkey about 18 months ago.