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Syrian Christians Fear Persecution

A Syrian boy and other refugees who fled the violence in Syria are seen at a temporary shelter in a school in the Wadi Khaled area of northern Lebanon 7 March. (photo: CNS /Jamal Saidi, Reuters)  

09 Mar 2012 – by Judith Sudilovsky

JERUSALEM (CNS) — Christians in Syria live in fear of a repeat of persecution like was seen in Iraq, said officials of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

“The same pattern like in Iraq is re-emerging, as Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians in Syria,” said Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria. “Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon — which took place against the backdrop of a civil war — could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians.”

“We lost Christians in Iraq; if we lose (them) in Syria what will happen to Christians in the Middle East?” said Ra’ed Bahou, the Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq. “Christians are leaving the region, and we have to work to reduce this loss. Time is not with us. (Syria) is the last castle of Christianity in the Middle East. If they start emigrating from Syria, it is the beginning of the end of Christianity in this area.”

In a March 7 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, Bahou said there are no official statistics, but an estimated 200 Christians were among the recent wave of Syrian refugees entering Jordan. He said many of those same refugees earlier had fled Iraq for Syria.

“They are refugees from one country to another. It is everywhere now, not just in Jordan. Also in Lebanon and Turkey. This population movement is also creating a changing Middle East,” Bahou said.

In an email interview, Bishara said more than 200 Christians have been killed in the violent confrontations between government soldiers and rebels in the Syrian city of Homs.

In addition, he said, Christian residents of the Homs neighborhood of Hamidiya have been stopped from leaving the city by anti-government forces. He said they were forced into the mosque, where they have been used as human shields by rebel forces as protection against attack by government troops.

Bahou said Syria has an estimated 1.5 million Christians, and many of the Christians are concerned about what their situation will be like in a future Syria should the current regime of Bashar al-Assad collapse. As they were in Egypt, the minority Christian community in Syria is regarded as allied with the ruling secular regime which, although it is a dictatorship, ensured freedom of religion. Christians fear retribution from anti-government and extremist Islamic forces, Bahou said.

“Usually (totalitarian) regimes support minorities to gain their support. If the regime collapses — and it could collapse at any time — Christians are afraid for their future,” Bahou said.

He said the Jordanian government has placed the number of refugees entering Jordan at about 80,000; about 10,000 have crossed the borders unofficially. Most of the refugees have sought haven in border towns, many with family and friends, he said.

Since late February, the Pontifical Mission office in Amman also has started to see an increase in the number of refugees coming to the office, said Bahou.

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