With the situation in Syria worsening by the day, Tom Gallagher of the National Catholic Reporter this week interviewed by e-mail CNEWA’s Issam Bishara, regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Based in Beirut, Bishara offered a comprehensive assessment of what is happening to Christians in the region:
NCR: What is the current situation at this time for Christians in Syria, who make up about 10 percent of the 2.5 million population?
Bishara: The majority of Christians in Syria are not concentrated in one specific geographical area, but are rather dispersed all over the country, which makes their security situation more critical. However, at present and with only the exception of the Christians of Homs, the majority of Christians remained in their communities and in their homes. But as we knew from different sources related to the church, the Christian families started looking for a contingency plan consisting of finding a safer place for their families in case the uprising and the military events escalated all over Syria, with the same scenario as Homs.
Christians in Syria are in a difficult spot because if they support the protestors, they could be targeted by Assad’s government forces, and if they support Assad, and his regime falls, they could be retaliated against by a new Islamist regime. So what are Christians currently doing during this conflict?
During this conflict, the majority of church leaders from different confessions and rites expressed their concern toward the escalation and violence and the repercussions on the minorities, and called their communities to remain calm and to avoid taking sides in this conflict, whether against the regime or against the protesters.
But the general feeling among the Christian communities is a deep concern based on the reality that where the Arab Spring has flourished, political life has become more fanatic and less tolerant of recognizing equal rights for Christians. Even Tunisia, where the former regime was based on a complete secular approach and tradition for more than 50 years, turned into an Islamic-dominated government, and just yesterday, large demonstrations there were calling for the establishment of a full Islamic state.
Have Christians been specifically targeted by Assad and his government forces?
No. On the contrary, the regime is still providing protection to the Christian communities in almost all places where the regime is still controlling the ground. But the problem occurred especially in Homs after the protestors and the Islamic groups had controlled a part of the city (Bab Amro Quarter) where around 200 Christians were killed. The other concern is related to terrorism, which can target anyone and any place and especially Christian military officers and their communities.
The city of Damascus is important historically and has religious significance for Christians. The city has also been a city tolerant of religious minorities. Is this still the case or have things changed for the worse for Christians during this conflict?
Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities of Syria, remained relatively well-secured and controlled by the Syrian regular forces, and all Christians in those cities are still enjoying their freedom and practicing their faith as regular.
On Feb. 24-25, the ancient St. Virgin Mary Church was damaged in the fighting in Homs. Can you tell us more about that?
St. Mary Church of the Holy Belt is located in the downtown of Homs, or what is so-called “the Old City,” and is considered the siege of the Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese of Homs. The majority of churches and Archbishoprics of other confessions are also concentrated in the same surrounding (Hamidiya, Boustan el Diwan, etc.), and this quarter was subject to military confrontations between the militias and the government forces, and most of the time militiamen were using the churches and the Christians as shields to protect themselves from shelling. It is also important to mention that some icons inside the churches were damaged on purpose by the militias.
With so much fighting going on, many people are leaving their homes in order to find refuge in safer areas. Is this the case with Christians, especially those Christians in and around Homs? If so, where are Christians going to seek refuge?
Despite the difficulties of getting accurate statistics from the field, our updated information estimates that before the military escalations in Homs, the Christians used to number around 1,500 families (all rites). At present and after two weeks of the withdrawal of the militias from Bab Amro, the security situation is still very critical, especially with all the sniper fire on the civilians and the army on one hand and the acts of pillage on the other hand.
A religious sister told us this morning that the 500 families who left their houses during the battle and found shelter in Tartous and Damascus found their houses and properties completely stolen or even confiscated.
The families who decided to remain are in danger, are living in fear and poverty. Most of them cannot go outside their dwellings because of sniper fire, and of course none of them have any kind of income; the only reason they stay in Homs is to preserve their properties and because they have no other place to go to.