WASHINGTON, D.C. Syrian Christians are caught in the middle of the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad's forces and rebel fighters.
What began as a peaceful protest against the Assad regime has progressed into a civil war between Assad's mostly Shiite government forces and mostly Sunni rebels, with each side supported by regional and global powers. According to the United Nations, 93,000 people have died and 1.6 million Syrians have fled the country.
Amid the upheaval: Syria's ancient Christian community is in danger, according to testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives.
"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," Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said during testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs' Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa on June 25.
Syrian Christians are asking why the U.S. is at war with them, said John Eibner, CEO of Christian Solidarity International, who has taken a trip to Syria. A report from Religion Today also noted that Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., asked President Obama to stand up for Syrian Christians.
More Christian refugees are fleeing Syria than any other religious or ethnic group, according to the Vulnerability Assessment of Syria's Christians, a report by Open Doors International, an organization that supports the persecuted church. Smith, meanwhile, stated that statistics reveal "Christians are even more fearful for their lives and safety than other segments of the Syrian population."
Christian men are being pressured from both sides to join the fight, according to a World Watch Monitor report on June 25. But M. Zudhi Jasser, a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said Assad's government is making the most direct push for their support.
Before the war, Assad's government permitted Christians to worship freely as long as they did not politically oppose him, said Jasser, who also testified before the House subcommittee.
"The regime refers to the opposition and all Sunni Muslims as both extremists and terrorists who seek to turn Syria into an Islamic state which would be unwelcoming to religious minority communities," Jasser testified. "Assad and government officials stoked fears among Christians, citing the plight of Egyptian Coptic Christians and Iraqi Christians to depict what would happen to Syrian Christians should the opposition be successful."
That has not stopped Assad's forces from bombing and desecrating a number of churches, Jasser said, but he added that Christians also were targeted by opposition groups.
"Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts," Shea said in her testimony, which portrayed Islamic extremists, some of whom are powerful rebel groups, as Christians' biggest threat. "In addition, [Christians] have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear."
Shea said Islamist militias have made life "impossible" for Christians, relaying the words of Metropolitan Archbishop Jean Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo's Melkite Greek Catholic Church, who spoke to the Catholic outlet AsiaNews.
"As soon as they reached the city [of Aleppo], Islamist guerrillas, almost all of them from abroad, took over the mosques," Jeanbart said. "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."
Christians also have become prey to kidnappers, Shea said, noting that bishops have been abducted and never heard from again while other Christians are held for ransom.
Shea said one father told his ordeal to Swedish Assyrian journalist Nuri Kino.
"We're not poor, we didn't run from poverty," the father told Kino. "We ran from fear. I have to think about my 12-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."
In addition, Shea testified, sharia (Islamic) courts associated with Islamist rebels have targeted Christians for expulsion from their homes, forced conversion to Islam and summary executions. Towns in a Christian valley near Homs experienced rebel control as described by an Orthodox cleric.
"[The towns] are ruled by newly-appeared emirs, and those Christians who were not able to flee these places are obligated to pay jizya a special tax that allows them to remain Christians, and Christian women must hide their faces like Moslem women," the cleric said, as relayed by Shea. "If they don't pay the jizya they are simply killed."
Christians who flee the country tend not to officially register as refugees, Jasser testified. One reason is that they do not want to be labeled regime supporters simply due to their religious affiliation. Another is that, should they return to regime-held areas in Syria, they fear the government may view them as disloyal for seeking shelter in another country."One suffers for lack of goods, fuel, electricity, sometimes for food," said Jeanbart, the Aleppo Archbishop, according to Shea. "But what makes us suffer most is to see that the future gets darker and darker. The future for us Christians and for all Syrians can only be based on full citizenship, freedom, dignity and respect for others. Otherwise what will happen to us?