By Natasha Dado
Throughout the Syrian crisis a great deal of concern has continuously emerged, regarding the safety and future of minorities in the country and whether it would be threatened if the current government were ousted from power.
The international community has warned that the removal of a secular government would make minorities vulnerable to the same persecution that Christians in Iraq faced, following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“We are neither with, nor against the regime. We are happy with the treatment we’ve received. We don’t believe toppling a secular regime will be safe for the population; not only for Christians, but other minorities and Muslims,” said Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim, the archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church for the Eastern United States. “The relatively peaceful government that existed will not exist.”
Dr. Ramsey Dass, president of the American Middle East Christians Congress, says the fear that minorities in Syria will be subjected to the same violence that those in Iraq faced after the invasion and Saddam Hussein’s fall, has already become a reality.
“It is happening, and as we speak, it is happening,” Dass said.
The opposition in Syria, which is still fighting to remove President Bashar Al-Assad from power and take control of the country, has launched assaults on Christians that include kidnapping two bishops, the killing of priests, threatening minorities and, most recently, attacking Maaloula, one of Syria’s most ancient Christian villages.
Members of the opposition in Syria have been linked to Al-Qaeda, which has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks against various religious sects.
Both the Syrian regime and the opposition have been accused of war crimes against innocent civilians in Syria by human rights organizations.
In an interview on NBC’s, Meet the Press, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul said that Assad, "has protected Christians for a number of decades." He went on to state that Islamic rebels "have been attacking Christians" and are aligned with Al Qaeda. In the interview, Paul added, "I think the Islamic rebels winning is a bad idea for the Christians. All of a sudden, we'll have another Islamic state where Christians are persecuted."
Of the more than two million Christians in Syria, about 500,000 have already fled the country, as a result of the crisis. Several Christians who have left their homeland, or found refuge in safer places inside Syria, have cited religious intimidation as a reason for leaving.
Nearly half of the Christian population in Iraq fled the country following the invasion.
For decades, Arab Christians have been fleeing the Holy Land and the rest of the Middle East in large numbers, mainly as a result of violence.
Muslims have also been persecuted by the same extremists, who have launched assaults on Christians and attacked mosques and Islamic clerics.
Christians are minorities in Muslim majority countries and, as more of them continue to face exile and persecution, a fear has increased that they could someday become extinct, or part of history in many countries. In Iraq, there are only an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Christians remaining.
Christians are being attacked throughout the Muslim world. Last month alone in Pakistan, suicide bombers killed at least 85 people after a Sunday mass at a historic church.
A group of Islamist militants from Somalia murdered at least 68 workers and shoppers in September at a Kenya mall, allegedly shouting for Muslims to get out of the way so they could identify Christians to kill.
Coptic Christians in Egypt were the target of supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood, who, this summer, attacked dozens of churches, Christian homes and businesses. The attacks were carried out by Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who blamed Christians for the ousting of former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi.
President Obama’s administration has been criticized for not doing enough to protect minorities in the Arab World, particularly in Iraq, where they have faced persecution after the instability caused by the U.S.-led invasion.
"The Western world isn’t doing enough to protect the minorities," Archbishop Karim said.
As Christians in Syria, Egypt and other countries continue to be attacked, Dr. Dass hopes the American government takes more action than it did when Christians in Iraq were persecuted over the last decade. “The American government cannot make the same mistake,” Dr. Dass said.
For Middle Eastern Christian Americans it has become increasingly difficult to watch the attacks against minorities unfold abroad, especially in the countries they trace their roots to.
Dr. Dass has been at the forefront of raising awareness of the plight of Christians in the Middle East to high ranking elected officials.
He says there are a few things that Christian Middle Easterners in the United States can do to help those abroad. The first is to write to their U.S. Congressmen and Senators about the concern over the safety of minorities.
“They shouldn’t be quiet. They should raise their voice and say it as it is,” he said. Dr. Dass added that some efforts have been made to try and raise awareness through billboards and by placing ads in the media, to draw attention to the issue.
Despite the current situation surrounding minorities, Dr. Dass is still hopeful for the future of Christians in the Middle East. He says that new efforts are being made, which make him more optimistic about their future than he was a year ago.
He says more meetings are taking place and more dialogue is occurring internationally on the issue.
About 70 high-ranking Arab church leaders, together with their Western counterparts and Muslim clerics, gathered in Amman, Jordan, on Sept. 3-4 for a meeting to address the challenges facing Arab Christians. The Christian and Muslims leaders aimed to find a way to end the sectarian strife threatening their people and countries.
“We will always have a future; maybe in a different shape or matter,” Dr. Dass said.
He’s received support from leaders outside of the Christian community, including Muslim Americans, who are concerned about religious freedom being threatened by extremists.
Rev. Fr. Anton Sabha, an American Syrian Orthodox religious leader who was born in Syria, says the future for Christians in Syria is uncertain. “Right now we really don’t know what will happen, and we pray for peace and the safety of people,” he said.
Sabha says Syrian Christians are the indigenous people of Syria, the country they’re now being forced to flee. Rev. Sabha says in Maahloua, Aramaic, which is widely known as the language of Christ, is spoken. “We feel that Christians in the Middle East are driven out of their homeland. "Those who have been there for thousands of years, we are the native people of that homeland,” Archbishop Karim said.
Rev. Sabha says that he continuously worries about the safety of his family in Syria. He personally knew one of the Syrian bishops who was kidnapped by rebels. “First of all, one of the archbishops was my hero, and he was my teacher,” he said.
Dr. Dass and Archbishop Karim say that driving Christians out of their homeland would have disastrous effects on Muslim majority countries that minorities have contributed to immensely.
“Christians have been a source of enlightenment for that country (Syria) and made great contributions,” Archbishop Karim said.
He says the attack in Maaloula sends a strong message to all Christians that they aren’t welcome in Syria.
Dr. Dass stressed on the importance of interfaith dialogue. “If we don’t work together, we are doomed. We pray all the time, not only for the Christians, but for the Muslims as well,” he said.