No one can deny that the situation in Syria is dire. Death and destruction are ever-present. And when terror and chaos emerge, minority groups often have much to fear.
That’s especially true for Syria’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the nation’s population. Increasingly, they’re being caught in the crossfire between numerous Islamic groups.
In a recent report, CNN provided a recap of the many religious sects that have a stake in the current Syria crisis. With the vast majority of the Middle East being Islamic in both governance and personal faith allegiance, being a non-Muslim in the region can be difficult.
That in mind, the rebels, who are generally Sunnis, see Christians as supporters of President Bashar al-Assad and his government (Assad’s government is part of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam), the Associated Press reports.
And that raises the question: If Syrian rebels take control of the country, does that mean doom for the nation’s Christians?
Why Christians Are Caught in the Middle
Assad’s regime has been brutal in its handling of protests, but its treatment of Christians has surprisingly been seen as fair by some. Rebels, however, haven’t been as polite.
CNN has more about this dynamic — one that complicates how this group handles itself in the crisis (emphasis added):
Under Assad, Christians had more rights than in many Middle Eastern countries, with the freedom to worship and run schools and churches. Their rights were limited however. The Syrian constitution says the president must be Muslim, for example.
According to UN reports, rebel fighters have targeted Christian communities, shooting up factories and detonating car bombs in Christian neighborhoods.
In addition, many Christians – in Syria and in the United States – fear the fate of Christians should Sunni fundamentalists take power in Syria.
While some see the rebels as freedom fighters looking to take their nation back from the arms of a brutal dictator, others fear what might come of Christians and other minorities should these groups seize power. Will the rights that Christians secured under Assad be eroded? It’s certainly too early to tell, but the signs we’re seeing so far aren’t very encouraging.
At the moment, one thing is for certain: Syrian Christians are caught in the middle of a deadly and unpalatable crossfire.
How Christians Have Been Impacted By the Violence
Fighting on Wednesday and Thursday broke out in Maaloula, a village in western Syria that is held by the government. Assad’s forces battled al-Qaeda-linked rebels (part of the Jabhat al-Nusra group), the Associated Press reports.
On Wed., an al-Nusra adherent blew himself up at the village’s entrance, sparking fighting that extended into Thursday in the surrounding mountain area. There are 3,300 residents in the village — and many of them speak Aramaic, the language believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ.
A nun told the AP on condition of anonymity that residents expect the Islamic militants to return to a local hotel that they captured — and then vacated. This, of course, would be potentially horrific, especially if Christians are further brutalized and forced out of the area. One hundred villagers took refuge in the nun’s convent as the village was attacked.
That’s only the latest example of what Christians face in the region, as radical Islamists target non-Muslims. Earlier this month, the AP also reported on an alleged massacre in which 11 people who were mostly Christians were shot and killed during a Christian feast (there are differing details and numbers, with some saying that only nine of the group were Christians).
And of course, there was the tragic case of Fr. Francois Murad, a Catholic priest, who was killed earlier this summer in Syria. While it was initially alleged that he was beheaded, it inevitably turned out that Murad was shot by jihadists. He was martyred on June 23 when, as Catholic Online reports, “he was … taking refuge in the monastery of St. Simon … jihadits rebels [allegedly] entered the monastery to ransack the place and Murad was shot while attempting to defend his sister nuns.”
Fears Over Rebel Forces’ Ideological Roots
These instances have caused some to question who, exactly, the rebels are and how their potential power grab from Assad could turn out badly for Christians, among other minority groups.
On Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) addressed some of these attacks on Christians and the overall situation in Syria, noting his belief that Assad has actually protected non-Muslims in the past. He also said that the rebels have been attacking Christians and that they are aligned with the al-Qaeda (again, understanding the different rebel groups is a bit complicated, but it seems definitive that many rebels are Islamists), according to The Huffington Post.
“I think the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians, and all of a sudden we’ll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted,” Paul proclaimed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Paul obviously has serious concerns, but U.S. Sec. of State John Kerry this week attempted to frame the majority of rebels fighters as moderates. But while he has claimed that moderation is a growing tone, there are other concerns worth exploring.
As Reuters notes: “While the radical Islamists among the rebels may not be numerically superior to more moderate fighters, [experts] say, Islamist groups like the al Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front are better organized, armed and trained.”
Despite Kerry’s optimism, even the government has shown massive concerns over who, exactly, the U.S. would be assisting if the nation took direct action against the Assad regime. Reuters continues:
As recently as late July, at a security conference in Aspen, Colorado, the deputy director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, David Shedd, estimated that there were at least 1,200 different Syrian rebel groups and that Islamic extremists, notably the Nusra Front, were well-placed to expand their influence.
“Left unchecked, I’m very concerned that the most radical elements will take over larger segments” of the opposition groups, Shedd said. He added that the conflict could drag on anywhere “from many, many months to multiple years” and that a prolonged stalemate could leave open parts of Syria to potential control by radical fighters.
Kerry defended his stance on Wednesday, railing back against Rep. Michael McCaul’s (R-Texas) claim that the majority of the rebels are radical Islamists.
“I just don’t agree that a majority are Al Qaeda and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists,” Kerry responded. “Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”
Clearly there’s some disagreement over the finer details.
The situation in Syria is dire. In addition to the general paradigm of government forces versus the rebels, it’s important to look deeper. The rebels are anything but homogeneous. PolicyMic published an article a few months back that’s worth exploring. In it, the composition of some of these groups is explained.
At the time of the article, the Free Syrian Army had 50,000 men and was touting itself as non-sectarian (and the largest rebel group in Syria). Then there’s the Syrian Liberation Front with 37,000 fighters and the Syrian Islamic Front, which has 13,000 fighters. Another group — the already mentioned al-Nusra — had 5,000 members in Jan. 2013 and has likely grown. According to PolicyMic, “al-Nusra’s core fighters come from Iraq’s post-war insurgency and have recently pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
These groups clearly have their own objectives and goals in mind, or else the division would be much less pronounced. Whoever gains power will have a say not only over the government but, naturally, over the lives of those who reside within the country.
If radical ideologies fill a potential vacuum, Christians might find themselves in for a major increase in persecution — which may include paying the ultimate price for their beliefs.