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Christians concerned about religious freedom if Turkey enters Syria

In late 2018 and early 2019, Turkey amassed more military hardware along its border with Syria, including tanks, howitzers and armored personnel carriers. While Turkish-backed forces inside Syria, whom analysts say include Al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters, have moved closer to the strategic town of Manbij. The Kurds, Christians and other religious minorities until now felt protected by the presence of U.S. ground troops.

Trump announced on 19 December the U.S. would pull out 2,000 American troops from Syria, saying the extremists were “defeated” and that Turkey will finish the problem. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and senior aide Brett McGurk resigned in protest.

After much criticism of the move, U.S. National Security Adviser John R. Bolton said the U.S. troop drawdown will be conditioned on the defeat of the Islamic State and the safety of Kurdish allies.

Both Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have warned Turkey that the planned U.S. pullout must not be seen as an opportunity to attack Syrian Kurdish forces. Syrian Kurdish and Christian fighters, allied with U.S. troops, are largely responsible for eradicating much of the Islamic State presence in Syria.

Many analysts believe Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s real aim in wanting to take over the fight against Islamic State is rid Kurdish fighters in Syria, whom he calls terrorists.

Pope Francis has stressed that Christians must have a future in the Middle East, and on 6 January he again urged authorities to ensure the security of Christians to live in their own countries as citizens in every sense of the word. Meanwhile, Christian activists in Washington, D.C., called on Trump not to abandon Syrian religious and ethnic minorities.

“We hope to see Syria emerge from its civil war with religious freedom and equal rights for all faiths, ethnic groups and women,” as currently evidenced in the northeast, said the International Religious Freedom Roundtable in a letter to the president. The umbrella grouping includes Law and Liberty Trust, Jubilee Campaign, the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the Netherlands-based Sallux.

“It is the best antidote to the totalitarian ideology of the Islamic State which threatens religious minorities and U.S. national security interests around the world,” the 7 January statement urged.

Bassam Ishak who heads the Syriac National Council of Syria, warned that Turkey supports Syrian jihadists “who want to establish Islamic sharia law in land they occupy in Syria.”

However, northeastern Syria under joint Kurdish and Christian control respects religious freedom for all its inhabitants for the first time in its recent history.

“It’s not just freedom to worship, but also the freedom to choose your religion. This means Christians can live in a religiously diverse culture and have a secure future,” said Ishak, a graduate of The Catholic University of America, Washington, who serves on the Syrian Democratic Council overseeing the self-administration region.

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Coverage of international religious freedom issues by Catholic News Service is supported in part by Aid to the Church in Need — USA (www.acnusa.org).





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