Asked About Plight of Syrian Christians, State Dept. Erroneously Blames Regime

Patrick Goodenough | January 31, 2012 | 4:59am EST
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A Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Damascus, Syria (Photo: Jan Smith/Flickr)

( – Christians are under threat in Syria, but the Obama administration appears unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, the source of the danger facing the minority.

Asked several times during a press briefing Monday about violence and threats facing Syrian Christians, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland appeared to blame the government – although Christians reportedly are at risk from elements among the anti-regime forces.

Christian advocacy groups have been warning for months about the hardships faced by Christians in Syria as the 10 month-old conflict between the government of President Bashar Assad and its opponents has worsened.

Although precise, corroborated information from Syria is difficult to come by, these groups and others have cited fears among Syrian Christians about the implications for the non-Muslim minority, should the regime fall.

Kidnappings, killings and disappearances have been reported, with Christians in flashpoint cities such as Homs particularly vulnerable.

A commonly repeated refrain is that Syrian Christians could soon face the same plight as their co-religionists in Iraq, where large numbers of Christians fled – many of them to Syria – in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

After the head of Barnabas Fund – a U.K.-based charity working with Christians in Islamic societies – visited Syria and met with church leaders last month he explained that since Christians were well-treated under Assad, they are perceived by anti-Assad elements to be supporters of the regime.

“And, as in other countries affected by the ‘Arab Spring,’ radical Islamists in Syria – with backing from Saudi Arabia – have seized the opportunity created by the unrest to pursue their agenda, increasing the danger for Christians,” said Patrick Sookhdeo.

“Until the protests started against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, the Christian community enjoyed some protection,” Open Doors USA president and CEO Carl Moeller said in a statement last month.

“Now they are afraid of the future. Will they have to flee their country like Iraqi Christians have done over the last several years? Please lift them up in your prayers.”

An Open Doors field worker on the ground was quoted as saying that radical Muslims were among those taking advantage of the situation of lawlessness in Syria.

“In the city of Homs, for example, the Sunni Muslims gained power on the streets when the government pulled out its troops for a few days,” the field worker said. “Some of the radical elements in this group have raided several churches. They robbed the churches of their most valuable things.”

During Monday’s State Department press briefing, spokeswoman Nuland was asked about Syrian Christians having come under attack and being “forced to flee because they feel that the government forces are not there to protect them.”

In her response, Nuland referred to the regime having “let loose in horrific ways against innocents,” and cited “a sharp increase in violence, just in recent days.”

The reporter then asked again specifically about vulnerable minorities – “in particular, Christian communities, that’s probably the oldest anywhere in the world” – and the need to protect them.

Once again, Nuland pointed a finger at the government, saying “this is a regime composed of a small minority that is now attacking the majority of Syrians, and they are attacking Christians, they’re attacking Druze, they’re attacking Sunnis, they’re even attacking Allawi communities.”

“Victoria,” interjected the reporter. “It’s regime opponents that are attacking these Christian communities.”

“It is the regime that bears responsibility for the violence,” Nuland replied. “There have been efforts by some Syrians to defend themselves from these attacks, but it is Assad and his cronies who started this, and it is Assad and his cronies who are responsible for the vast majority of the violence. And the blood is on their hands, fundamentally.”

She then said that the goal of the Syrian opposition was “to try to create a chance to have a Syria for all Syrians.”

“And we have been gratified and encouraging that in the opposition statements, they talk explicitly about protecting the rights of all Syrians, including all minorities.”

Christians are reported to comprise almost 10 percent of the population. Denominations include Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Melkite Greek Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Chaldeans, Maronites and Protestants including Baptists and Anglicans.

The minority’s numbers have been boosted by some 100,000 Iraqi Christians who have fled to Syria since 2003.

As early as last May, just two months into the turmoil, an Arab church leader expressed fears about the plight of Christians in Syria, urging foreign governments in an open letter to encourage reform, but not revolutions, in the Arab world.

“Already, the situation [in Syria] has deteriorated into organised crime, robbery, fear, terror being spread, rumours of threats to churches; victims, including the forces of law and order and others, are being mutilated,” wrote Patriarch Gregory, the Syrian-born head of the Melkite Greek Catholic church.

“Christians especially are very fragile in the face of crises and bloody revolutions!” he said. “Christians will be the first victims of these revolutions, especially in Syria. A new wave of emigration will follow immediately.”

A YouGov opinion poll carried out in December found that while a large majority of respondents in the broader Arab world wanted to see the departure of Assad, 55 percent of Syrian respondents said they did not want him to go.

Of those who said they wanted Assad to stay in power, the most common reason given – by 46 percent of that cohort of respondents – was: “We do not want to see Syria become another Iraq.”

Other higher-scoring reasons included:

--Most Syrians still support Assad. (39 percent)

--Sectarian violence will rise if Assad goes. (33 percent)

--The regime should be allowed time to deliver on its reform pledges. (30 percent)

--“Assad’s departure could allow Islamic extremists to gain a foothold. (28 percent).

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