JERUSALEM — Christians in Syria live in fear of a repeat of persecution like was seen in Iraq, said officials of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.
"The same pattern like in Iraq is re-emerging, as Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians in Syria," said Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria. "Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon — which took place against the backdrop of a civil war — could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians."
"We lost Christians in Iraq; if we lose (them) in Syria, what will happen to Christians in the Middle East?" said Ra’ed Bahou, the Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq. "Christians are leaving the region, and we have to work to reduce this loss. Time is not with us. (Syria) is the last castle of Christianity in the Middle East. If they start emigrating from Syria, it is the beginning of the end of Christianity in this area."
In a March 7 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, Bahou said there are no official statistics, but an estimated 200 Christians were among the recent wave of Syrian refugees entering Jordan. He said many of those same refugees earlier had fled Iraq for Syria.
"They are refugees from one country to another. It is everywhere now, not just in Jordan, also in Lebanon and Turkey. This population movement is also creating a changing Middle East," Bahou said.
In an e-mail interview, Bishara said more than 200 Christians have been killed in the violent confrontations between government soldiers and rebels in the Syrian city of Homs.
He said Christian residents of the Homs neighborhood of Hamidiya have been stopped from leaving the city by anti-government forces. He said they were forced into the mosque, where they have been used as human shields by rebel forces as protection against attack by government troops.
Bahou said Syria has an estimated 1.5 million Christians, and many of the Christians are concerned about what their situation will be like in a future Syria should the current regime of Bashar al-Assad collapse. As they were in Egypt, the minority Christian community in Syria is regarded as allied with the ruling secular regime which, although it is a dictatorship, ensured freedom of religion. Christians fear retribution from anti-government and extremist Islamic forces, Bahou said.
"Usually (totalitarian) regimes support minorities to gain their support. If the regime collapses — and it could collapse at any time — Christians are afraid for their future," Bahou said.
He said the Jordanian government has placed the number of refugees entering Jordan at about 80,000; about 10,000 have crossed the borders unofficially. Most of the refugees have sought haven in border towns, many with family and friends, he said.
Since late February, the Pontifical Mission office in Amman also has started to see an increase in the number of refugees coming to the office, Bahou said.
Based on the Pontifical Mission’s previous experience with the Iraqi refugees, he estimated it would cost $20 million to care for all the Syrian refugees now in Jordan. So far, he said, the only incoming funds have been a half a million dollars donated by the Irish government to provide aid for all Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.
In an e-mail from Beirut, Bishara said about 2,000 Syrian refugees have fled into Lebanon; most of them are Sunni Muslims who have found refuge with relatives.
He said the Sisters of the Good Shepherd have met with about 150 Syrian Christians from Homs who took refuge in Lebanon, in addition to about 50 families who escaped to Damascus. He said the parish priest of the Lebanese village of Qaa, Father Eliane Nasrallah, reported that some 40 Christian families found refuge at their relatives’ homes within his parish and are in dire need of assistance.
The Pontifical Mission for Palestine is the Vatican’s relief and development agency for the Middle East. It is under the auspices of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, which has offices in New York and in Ottawa, Ontario.
In an appeal in mid-February, after a visit to Syria, Franciscan Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, custos of the Holy Land, spoke of the embattled Franciscan friars who remained in Syria.
Father Pizzaballa described an atmosphere of "total confusion and dismay," with water and electrical shortages that had caused businesses to close. He also said an international embargo seriously affected farmers, who were unable to export their goods.
"In these months of great tension, when Syria is being torn apart by internal clashes, and where the conflict seems to be assuming more and more the form of a civil war, the Franciscans ... are committed to supporting the local Christian population," he wrote. "The medical dispensaries in the Franciscan monasteries, following the tradition of the Custody (Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land), have become places of refuge and hospitality for everyone, regardless of whether they are Alawite, Sunni, Christian, rebels or government supporters."