Remaining Christians in Syria fight to save their land

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(Photo: Youssef Badawi, european pressphoto agency)
DERIKE, Syria — Unlit Christmas lights adorn this small but largely isolated Christian town in northeastern Syria. But with only a few hours of electricity every day and most Christians gone the dark lights are a grim reminder of what used to be.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka province over the past three years because of an ongoing civil war, economic pressures and the rise of the Islamic State, which captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria earlier this year.

The Christians had numbered about 2.2 million — 10% of Syria’s population — and lived mainly in the northeast. Many of them also left because of the widespread perception they support the embattled Syrian government. Those remaining vehemently reject the claim.

Residents here estimate up to two-thirds have departed, leaving streets largely abandoned and dozens of shop fronts boarded up. The only sign of life surfaces in the late afternoon, when men gather to play cards and discuss politics at one of the two coffee houses still open.

Dajad Hagopian, 68, a Christian priest, is among those who have refused to leave. He wears his clerical clothing every day even though he only gives a sermon once a week to a handful of people at the Armenian Orthodox Church here.

“God said give us our daily bread, and we get it,” he said. “We may not get as much, but we have fruit, meat and bread, and that’s all we need.

While Derike has been largely spared from the civil war’s violence, it’s not far away. And with few employment opportunities, rising food prices and a lack of electricity and water, remaining residents aren’t optimistic about the future.

“We used to have big Christmas celebrations here and now look at the streets. What is there to celebrate?” lamented a man with a thick, gray mustache who only gave his first name, George, to protect his safety. Still, he’s staying put. “I can’t and won’t leave my home,” he said.

To protect the remaining Christians in the region, the Syriac Union Party created a Christian militia, called Sutoro, in early 2013. Opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the 1,000-member force mans checkpoints and patrols neighborhoods.

“We are protecting what has been ours for hundreds of years. We are the original owners of the land,” said one militia member, who would only give his first name, Aboud, also for safety concerns.

Despite a centuries-long tradition as Eastern Christians, a large chunk of the Syriac Christian community is steadily assimilating into an emerging Kurdish-run autonomous region.

“People don’t consider Christians as part of the Syrian population,” said Ashur Abu Sarkun, general commander of Sutoro. “It’s very important that we stay connected to the land. People don’t want Christians around … We welcome an autonomous region where Christians make decisions with the Kurds and Arabs.”

Sutoro often sends members to the front to fight alongside its military wing, the Syriac Military Council, which is run by Swiss fighter, Johan Cosar, who has Syriac roots.

Cosar, who was a member of the Swiss Army for five years, came to Syria more than two years ago initially with the intention of working as a journalist.

He’s the general commander of the military council working not only to defeat the Islamic State, but to help protect Syriac Christians’ rights. “Our roots are here,” he said on the front at Tel Hamis in northeastern Syria.

“If the war in Syria had finished two years ago, we as people wouldn’t have become anything because we didn’t have any organization, any power, nothing,” he said. “The international community wouldn’t have known anything about the Syriac people. Now everyone calls us Syriac, not only Christian.”

“If we get our rights here as a people, if we have our security here, if we have a really strong force, then I can say ‘OK, my mission is complete.’ But right now, it’s not possible to even think this.”