The following is the testimony of Nina Shea, Director of the Hudson Institute's Center For Religious Freedom, for the Committee On Foreign Affairs, U.S. House Of Representatives, Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. The hearing was held on June 25.
I commend the two Subcommittees for holding this critically important and timely hearing today. The question of the treatment of religious minorities concerns America's core values as a nation, but, in recent foreign policy, it is one that the United States has too often failed to address, with tragic results. It represents a grave human rights crisis and undermines our national security interests.
I am honored to have been invited to testify for the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. In my testimony, I will focus on the situation of the various Christian groups in Syria, and the threat they face to their continued existence in their ancient homeland. This threat, which undoubtedly applies equally to Syria's other defenseless and even smaller minorities -- such as the Yizidis (80,000) and Jews (under 100) -- about whom there is scant information, is not recognized or understood in US foreign policy. We are grateful to the Subcommittees two chairs, Rep. Christopher H. Smith and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for giving attention to this issue.
In the Middle and Targeted with Ethno-Religious Cleansing
In Syria's conflict, now characterized as overtly sectarian, every religious and ethnic group* has experienced catastrophic loss and pain. Reportedly over the past two years of war, 93,000 combatants and civilians, of diverse religious identities, have been killed, 1.5 million have become refugees, and 4.5 million more have been internally displaced. Though no religious community has been spared suffering, Syria's ancient Christian minority has cause to believe that they confront an "existential threat," according to a finding of the UN Human Right Council's Commission of Inquiry on Syria, last December. And this group, in contrast to Syria's Alawites, Shiites and Sunnis, has no defender.
Syria's Christians are primarily ethnically Assyrian but some are also Armenian and Arab, who together number between 2-2.5 million or 10 percent of the population, and follow some ten different faith traditions.** They face a distinct peril so dire that their ability to survive in Syria is being seriously doubted by church leaders and independent secular observers, alike. While in some neighborhoods they struggle to maintain defense committees, they lack militias of their own. Nor do they have protective tribal structures, or support from any outside power. Referencing Syria, Archbishop Elias Chacour, head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Israel, remarked a few weeks ago that, while many people are facing hardship and dying in the Arab Spring, no group is suffering more than Christians.
Living largely in the Syrian governorates of Hassake, Homs, Damascus, and Aleppo, the Christians are extremely vulnerable. They are indeed stranded in the middle of a brutal war, where each side -- regime and rebel -- fires rockets into civilian areas and carry out indiscriminate bloody attacks daily. The Christian churches, which were registered and permitted by the Assad regime, have not formally allied themselves with either side in the conflict and in fact Christians have largely avoided taking sides despite intense pressure to do so by both the government and the opposition.
For example, Christians have been reportedly displaced by the regime in Tal Nasri, Um Sharshoh, and the old city of Homs. They have been reportedly displaced by the Free Syrian Army in Mesmye, Daraa, Ghassaniy, Idlib, Quseir and Rable in Homs. And clashes between the two sides caused displacements that disproportionately impacted the Christian residents, though Muslims were also affected, in Ras al-Ayn, Deir el-Zor.
The Christians, however, are not simply caught in the middle, as collateral damage. They are the targets of a more focused shadow war, one that is taking place alongside the larger conflict between the Shiite-backed Baathist Assad regime and the largely Sunni rebel militias. Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear.
Wherever they appear, Islamist militias have made life impossible for the Christians. Metropolitan Archbishop Jean Clement Jeanbart, of Aleppo's Melkite Greek Catholic Church, told the Rome-based Catholic outlet, AsiaNews, "Christians are terrified by these militias and fear that in the event of their victory they would no longer be able to practice their religion and that they would be forced to leave the country." He explained:
"As soon as they reached the city [of Aleppo], Islamist guerrillas, almost all of them from abroad, took over the mosques. Every Friday, an imam launches their messages of hate, calling on the population to kill anyone who does not practice the religion of the Prophet Muhammad. They use the courts to level charges of blasphemy. Who is contrary to their way of thinking pays with his life."
Unprotected, the Christians are also prime victims of kidnappers and thieves. In one example last February, a Syrian Orthodox dentist in Aleppo told the American Christian Morningstar News that he finally fled into exile when the constant fear of sniper-fire and kidnapping of Christians made life too dangerous. "Some people would come to my dental office and threaten me with kidnapping," he says. The outlet reported that "[i]n the city of Hassaké, 50 Christians were kidnapped last month [January]. Most recently, a Christian pharmacist was kidnapped earlier this month and held for a ransom of approximately 11,000 euros."
Such threats and assaults are driving out the Christians en masse, from various parts of the country. This 2,000-year-old community -- some members of which still pray in Jesus' Aramaic tongue and trace their churches to St. Paul, who had experienced his conversion to the faith on the road to Damascus -- is now facing extinction.
Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East, who has been desperately working to cope with the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon and Iraq, wrote to me in February:
"We are witnessing another Arab country losing its Christian Assyrian minority. When it happened in Iraq nobody believed Syria's turn would come. Christian Assyrians are fleeing massively from threats, kidnappings, rapes and murders. Behind the daily reporting about bombs there is an ethno-religious cleansing taking place, and soon Syria can be emptied of its Christians."
Syriac League President Habib Afram states that Christians are "systematically targeted" with kidnappings, which are used to collect ransom or to terrorize them into leaving. The highest profile attack was the kidnapping by gunmen in April of two church leaders, Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim, as they drove back to Aleppo from a trip to the Turkish border where they worked for the release of two kidnapped priests. They have not reappeared. The authors of the attack on these two hierarchs are unknown but it sent an unmistakable signal to all Christians: none is protected.
Other clergy have been kidnapped and disappeared as well. In a report confirmed by the Vatican news agency Fides, on February 9, 2013, 27-year-old Father Michael Kayal of the Armenian Catholic Church in Aleppo was abducted by Islamic extremist rebels as he was travelling on a bus on his way to Rome. He was pulled off when Islamist gangs spotted his clerical garb. He has not been seen since. A similar fate befell the Greek Orthodox Maher Mahfouz around the same time.
The American Christian news service Compass Direct News reported in December 2012 of the torture and subsequent murder of a Syrian Orthodox parish priest Father Fadi Haddad. He left his church in the town of Qatana to negotiate the release of one of his kidnapped parishioners, but the priest never returned. A week later, Fr. Haddad's mutilated corpse was found by the roadside, with his eyes gouged out. His murderers are unknown.
Ordinary individuals, too, have been summarily killed after being identified as Christian.
For example, Fides reported that a man named Yohannes was killed by an Islamist gunman who stopped the bus he was taking on the way to Aleppo and checked the background of each passenger. When the gunman noticed Yohannes' last name was Armenian, they singled him out for a search. After finding a cross around his neck, "One of the terrorists shot point blank at the cross tearing open the man's chest."
Such reports are not uncommon. A woman from Hassake recounted in December to Swedish journalist Nuri Kino how her husband and son were shot in the head by Islamists. "Our only crime is being Christians," she answers when asked if there had been a dispute.
On February 13, 2013, the New York Times reported on Syrian refugee interviews it collected in Turkey:
"One mother told of the abduction of a neighbor's child, held for ransom by rebel fighters in her hometown of Al-Hasakah, which prompted her family to seek safety for their three young sons across the border in Turkey. A young man demonstrated how he was hung by his arms, robbed and beaten by rebels, 'just for being a Christian.'"
Muslims are subject to kidnapping too but the Wall Street Journal reported on June 11, 2013, often "their outcome is different" because they have armed defenders. It told the story of a 25-year-old cabdriver Hafez al Mohammed who said he was kidnapped and tortured for seven hours by Sunni rebels in Al Waer in late May. He was released after Alawites threatened to retaliate by kidnapping Sunni women.
Swedish Assyrian journalist Nuri Kino, who travels to the region to interview Christian refugees from Syria recounts the story of Gabriel Staifo Malke, an 18-year-old who fled with his family from Hassake after his father was shot on July 17, 2012, for having a crucifix hanging from his car's rear view mirror: The son told him:
"In Hassake, terrorists had warned Christians that they would be killed if they didn't leave town; there was no room left for us. Most of the others hid their religion, didn't show openly that they were non-Muslims. But not Dad. After the funeral the threats against our family and other Christians increased. The terrorists called us and said that it was time to disappear; we had that choice, or we would be killed."
Many pointed to criminal assaults and a government that fails to protect them. A refugee detailed to Kino: "Two men from a strong Arabic tribe decided one day to occupy our farmland, just like that. When I went to the police to report, I was told there was nothing they could do. The police chief was very clear that they would not act, as they didn't want the tribe to turn against the regime."
A father told Kino: "We're not poor, we didn't run from poverty. We ran from fear. I have to think about my twelve-year-old daughter. She's easy prey for kidnappers. Three children of our friends were kidnapped. In two cases they paid enormous ransoms to get the children back, and in one case they paid but got the child back dead."
Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo, the Jesuit head of Syria's Caritas charity, according to a March 21, 2013, AFP interview, said between 20,000-30,000 out of 160,000 Christians had fled the city of Aleppo, and two priests were abducted and held each for a ransom of 15 million Syrian pounds ($150,000).
In an English-language video, Fr. Fadi al-Hamzi relates that his uncle was recently murdered: "They killed him because he is Christian, they refuse to have any Christians in Syria. … ." When asked if he was worried if Christians would be massacred if jihadists overthrew the government, the priest said, "Yes, yes, this will be… they don't want us here."
Christians, as well as others, also have been targeted with summary executions, forcible conversions to Islam and expulsions from their homes as a result of actions taken by the courts of the "Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant", the name the al Nusra Brigade and other Islamist rebels use in reference to the Syrian territory under their control. The Christians find it impossible to survive under such rule.
According to AsiaNews, currently some 30 recognizable militias with some 100,000 fighters operate in Syria, and of these, only a handful belong to the Free Syrian Army, the main interlocutor of the international community. The others are linked to Al-Qaeda or belong to other Islamist or political movements.
Sources told AsiaNews, "the purpose of these groups is not only the liberation of Syria from Assad, but also the spread by force of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and the conquest of Jerusalem." Based on interviews with local church leaders, this Catholic press reported that many fighters do not speak Arabic, come from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Indonesia, and, according to some villagers near Aleppo, several, particularly younger, fighters were recruited by being told that they were going to "liberate Jerusalem." These extremists have wasted no time in establishing sharia courts.