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Syria - Country profile

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The chemical weapons attack on Ghouta, just outside the Syrian capital, Damascus, on 21 August 2013 – in which at least 3,600 were hospitalised and at least 355 died – stepped up international concern over the situation in Syria.

But Syria's Christian leaders opposed plans by the west to increase the militarization of the region in response to the chemical attacks, claiming it would lead to more deaths and more misery for the country's civilians. Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch told Aid to the Church in Need that "it is time to finish with these weapons and, instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace."

Besides the Church, many other groups have spoken out against supplying weapons, but this did not stop the US providing armaments to opposition military groups from late August 2013.

Death toll exceeds 100,000

By the middle of 2013, violence had claimed more than 100,000 lives since the conflict began in spring 2011. With entire towns and villages empty and in ruins, at least four million people were displaced within the country. Nearly two million others had fled across Syria's borders. As of August 2013, it was predicted that by 2014 10 million people, nearly half the country's pre-war population, would be in urgent need of aid, making it the worst disaster in the UN's history.

Role of religious persecution in conflict

Religious persecution has played a crucial part in the conflict in Syria, which the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees called "the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Cold War". Christians suffered considerably, as did so many faith communities.

Islamist violence was mostly directed against other Muslims, but Christians were very much at risk too. Seen as sympathetic to President Assad's regime, Christians were victim to attacks from the rebel Free Syrian Army; on the other hand, seen as sympathetic to the West by virtue of their shared Christian faith, they were a target for forces loyal to the regime and fearful of international pressure mounting against the Syrian government.

Such problems were compounded by the fact that Christians were most populous in regions where the violence was often most severe.

Mass exodus from Homs

Early on in the conflict, events in Homs – home to Syria's second largest Christian community – showed the extent of the crisis being faced by the faithful. Thousands upon thousands of Christians fled the city. In Homs' Christian quarter, eight or more ancient churches and other religious buildings were desecrated and ruined. Extremist soldiers also targeted mainstream Muslims.

The faithful fled Homs for the nearby Valley of the Christians, home to numerous Christian-majority towns and villages. Emergency aid was urgently requested by leading Catholic charities amid reports that other organisations were ignoring the particularly severe crisis endured by Christians.

Instances of Christian persecution

Although persecution of Christians was not as prevelant as some reports suggested, for some it was a very real phenomenon. Aid to the Church in Need interviewed the Enser family who fled to Jordan from Damascus, where in early 2011 they encountered Islamists stating: "Don't celebrate Easter otherwise you will be killed like your Christ."

Claims of an anti-Christian dimension to the conflict became irrefutable when it became clear that clergy were at particular risk. Some were targeted after seeking to negotiate with terrorists for the release of kidnapped Christians. The October 2012 abduction and brutal killing of Fr Fadi Haddad, from Qatana, caused widespread shock. The outrage intensified barely six months later when two Archbishops from Aleppo were abducted – Boulos Yazigi and Yohanna Ibrahim. Months on from their kidnapping, some began to suspect that they were dead.

Christians forced to flee the country

The killing and abduction of clergy, the desecration of churches, and ongoing violence and intimidation, left Christians with no option but to leave. As recently as the 1920s, Christians had previously made up 30 percent of Syria's population, and their numbers were recently boosted by the arrival of refugees from Iraq. However, they were suddenly in massive decline.

Reliable figures regarding the extent of the Christian exodus are in short supply. In mid-2013 reports from Aleppo, for example, showed that within two years 30,000 Christians had fled the city, leaving perhaps as few as 150,000 behind. Some displacement camps and refugee centres have reported a disproportionate number of Christians.

Worsening crisis facing Christianity in Syria

Such reports suggested the crisis facing Christianity in Syria was worse than previously thought, with dire implications regarding its prospects for the future. Until recently, Syria had been a refuge for Christians sheltering from persecution elsewhere, notably Iraq. By coming to Syria and not emigrating to the West, they at least gave hope to the survival of Christianity in the Middle East

But events since 2010 have changed such hopes into doubt. By the summer of 2013, human rights observers were reporting that the "majority" of Iraqi Christians in Syria had fled. The signs were that unless there was a dramatic change for the better, many if not most of Syria's indigenous Christians would do the same. The Church in Syria, the survivor of severe persecution dating back almost to Christianity's beginnings, has clearly entered one of its most perilous periods. 

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War, violence and suffering in Syria

January 2012: A secret report stated that Christians were being murdered and kidnapped as part of spreading violence. Amongst the victims a 28-year-old and a 37-year-old father-to-be were kidnapped and later found dead. One was found hanged and the other cut to pieces and thrown in a river. Four others were abducted and threatened with death.
Source: Barnabas Fund, 18/1/12

March 2012: At least 50,000 people, almost the entire Christian population of Homs, fled violence and persecution, seeking sanctuary in neighbouring villages and towns when  extremist members of the Faruq Brigade – part of the Free Syrian Army – went from door to door targeting Christian homes. Lebanese-based Fr Elias Aghia recounted first-hand testimony from refugee families. “Once the Islamists went in, there was nothing the Christians could do. Where could they hide? Where could they go? The army could not protect them or send in tanks – the ancient streets are too small. Do not think this was an accident. There is a deliberate plan to isolate, cut off and destroy the Christian communities.”  

August 2012: Gunmen attacked the Catholic monastery of Mar Musa, north of Damascus. They “stole everything they could steal, including tractors and other agricultural and farming tools”. The monastery was also attacked in February and April 2011.
Source: ANSA, 6/8/12

September 2012: Islamist extremists attacked the mostly Christian village of al-Hasaniya near the city of Homs, Syria. According to local TV, they killed five civilians and took 17 people hostage.
Source: Voice of Russia Radio, 5/9/12

September 2012: Rableh, a mostly Christian town, close to the Lebanese border was blocked for two weeks by Syrian rebels, who refused to allow food or medical supplies in. Bridges had been blown up and roads were impassable, with snipers shooting people attempting to enter or leave. Motorcyclists attempting to carry bread into the village were also shot at.
Source: Khaled Al Hariri, “Syrian Christians in 2-week blockade by rebel fighters, residents desperate”, Reuters, 25/0/2012

October 2012: Addressing a meeting in the House of Lords, Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo appealed for human rights and religious freedom: “If we Christians in my country were reduced to a token few, it would be disastrous because, until now, ours has been one of the last remaining strong Christian centres in the whole of the Middle East. And so I ask: what is the future of Christianity in the Middle East now?”  

October 2012: Fr Fadi Jamil Haddad, a Greek Orthodox priest, was kidnapped in Damascus after setting off to negotiate the release of a kidnapped parishioner. A ransom equivalent to £475,000 was demanded for 44-year-old Fr Haddad but he was killed anyway. Six days later, his body was found on a road with what was described as “indescribable signs of torture and mutilation” and with his eyes gouged out. Thousands attended his funeral the following day. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch called Fr Haddad a “martyr of reconciliation and harmony”.  

April 2013: Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch detailed atrocities against Christians since the conflict began in early 2011. He said 1,000 Christians had been killed, “entire villages have been cleared of their Christian inhabitants” and more than 40 churches and other religious buildings had been damaged or destroyed. Appealing for dialogue, he said: “The whole of Syria has become a battlefield… Every aspect of democracy, human rights, freedom, secularism and citizenship is lost from view and no-one cares.”
Source: Aid to the Church in Need News, 15/4/13

April 2013: Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boulos Yazigi and Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim were kidnapped near the city of Aleppo on return from a humanitarian mission. Their driver was killed in the ambush by an armed group (possibly Chechen jihadists). Two months later, with no information about their whereabouts, a candlelit prayer vigil was held in Lebanon by Archbishop Yazigi’s brother, Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X Yazigi who said: “It hurts our soul to see what is happening in our homeland.”
Source:  BBC News online, 24/4/13; Daily Star, Lebanon, 25/5/13

June 2013: Fr Francis Mourad, 49, was killed when Islamist fighters attacked the Monastery of St Anthony in al-Ghasssinyah, a predominantly Christian village in Syria's Idlib province. Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, said Fr Mourad was a guest at the monastery and was shot dead while trying to defend people living in the convent, who included four nuns and 10 lay Christians.
Source: Asia News 24/6/13

July 2013: Italian priest, Fr. Paolo dall’Oglio, who had been working in Syria for 30 years, was kidnapped by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, a militant rebel group with links to Al-Qaeda. He disappeared in the rebel-held city of Raqqa. Reports from Syrian activists that he had been killed were contradicted by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who claimed the priest was probably still alive.
Source: Zenit, 6/8/13; Reuters, 19/8/13

July 2013: Two priests reported the tragic suffering and death of Mariam, a 15-year-old Christian girl. Unable to escape her city, Qusair, with her family, Mariam was captured and forced into an Islamic marriage by the commander of Jabhat al-Nusra who raped her before repudiating her. This pattern carried on for 15 days in which she was married, raped and repudiated by 15 different men. She was killed when she began to display signs of mental illness. Salafist sheikh Yasir al-Ajlawni had declared it was lawful to rape any “non-Sunni Syrian woman” – including Alawites and Christians.
Source: Fides, 2/7/13

September 2013: Opposition troops, including al-Qaida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra entered the Christian village of Maaloula, one of the world’s earliest centres of Christianity, and home to 3,300 residents, some of whom still speak a dialect of Aramaic -the language of Jesus. Soldiers entered Christians’ homes demanding their conversion to Islam. 100 people took refuge in the convent. 

September 2013: The spiralling violence in the country has now created more than 2 million refugees, according to the UN refugee agency. “The war is now well into its third year and Syria is haemorrhaging women, children and men who cross borders often with little more than the clothes on their backs,” the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement released to mark the milestone. “This trend is nothing less than alarming, representing a jump of almost 1.8 million people in 12 months.”
Source: United Nations.

November 2013: Inhabitants of Sadad, near Homs, were subject to what is seen as the worst act of anti-Christian persecution since the war in Syria began.  1,500 families were held hostage and 45 were killed, including two teenage boys, their mother and three of their grandparents who were thrown down a well. Reports describe how, in this ancient Christian town mentioned in the Bible (Ezekiel), vulnerable people unable to escape were subjected to torture, such as strangulation. Church sources say 30 bodies were found in two separate mass graves.
Source: Aid to the Church in Need News 05/11/13

December 2013: Syria's Bishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh of Homs and Hama made a passionate appeal for the release of 12 religious sisters (from the Convent of St Tekla in Maalaoula, a largely Christian town north of Damascus) kidnapped in Syria. Bishop Alnemeh said that he had not heard from the Sisters since their disappearance 10 days ago, but believed they are now being held in Yabrud, 12 miles from Maaloula. The bishop said: "I demand the immediate release of the nuns, who have done no harm to anyone".
Source: Aid to the Church in Need News 11/12/13

December 2013: Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch and Bishop Alnemeh said that there was still no further news of the whereabouts of Patriarch John X's brother, Archbishop Paul Yazigi, and Archbishop John Ibrahim, both abducted in April 2013 while returning to Aleppo. Unable to confirm or deny conflicting reports of the bishops being in Syria or Turkey, Bishop Alnemeh said: "To date it has not been possible to confirm any of the information about where they are being held." Nor could he comment on other reports that one of the archbishops had died in captivity.
Source: Aid to the Church in Need News 11/12/13

Last updated: 14/01/2014

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Country statistics

Population22 million
ReligionsMuslim 92.75%
Christian 5.25%
Other 2%
Christian Population1.16 million*

*No reliable figures in the wake of a Christian exodus during the conflict are available

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