Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Highlights of the Joint Subcommittee Hearing on Minorities in Syria

The entire hearing can be accessed in video and text, here.


[…]For over four decades, the Syrian state has been unsurpassed in the Arab/Muslim Middle East as a protector of the basic religious freedom of the Sunni majority and of the non-Sunni minority religious communities. The historic Christian churches have long experienced not only freedom of worship, but also broad freedom to meet social needs outside the bounds of the Christian community and to demonstrate their faith publicly.
            Syria’s delicate religious balance was disturbed in 1982 when the Sunni supremacist Muslim Brotherhood a made bid for political power. This Islamist uprising was ruthlessly crushed by the Syrian state. A similar Islamist uprising took place in the spring of 2011. The opportunity arose when the “Arab Spring” pro-democracy movement reared its head in Syrian towns and cities. The peaceful pro-democracy movement was brutally suppressed by the Syrian government. But at the same time, a parallel non-democratic, Sunni supremacist movement, with strong ideological and lethal support from Saudi Arabia and other Islamist forces, soon made itself felt throughout the country.
            I have received testimony from Christians from Homs, Qusair, and Latakia who witnessed during the “Arab Spring” mobs emerging from Sunni mosques following what were presumably incendiary sermons, to make unruly public demonstrations in favor of the overthrow of the “infidel” Syrian government, and its replacement with a state with Islamic legitimacy. Among the genocidal slogans heard during such demonstration were “Alawites to the tomb, Christians to Beirut,” and “We will drink the blood of the Alawites.” These mobs were not pro-democracy freedom fighters.
            By the summer of 2011, violence became the dominant characteristic of the Sunni supremacist movement, as it came under the domination of Syrian and foreign jihadists. Alawites and Christians were targeted as the armed jihadist and their followers began to put their genocidal slogans into practice.
            Victims recounted to me details of the religious cleansing of Christian neighborhoods in Homs and Qasair by armed jihadis who threatened them with death and the destruction of their property if they did not leave their homes. A Christian woman told me that before she fled Homs at the beginning of 2012, she had seen the beheading in broad daylight of an Alawite girl who was pulled off a public minibus by armed jihadis. Churches in Homs and Qusair have not only damaged as a result of the exchange of mortars by the Syrian army and rebel forces, but have also been desecrated after falling under the control of the armed opposition.
            From credible media reports and interviews with Syrians on the frontline of the conflict, we see that the targeted kidnapping of non-Sunnis is now a  regular feature of the Syrian tragedy. I spoke with a Christian who reported that the four cousins of a close Alawite friend were kidnapped and beheaded. A nun told me that she knows a Christian girl who was kidnapped by armed insurgents and is now mentally deranged from the abuse. The victims of kidnapping include priests and prelates. The kidnapping of Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim and Greek Orthodox Archbishop Boutros Yazigi while attempting to negotiate the release of two abducted priests is widely interpreted within the Syrian Christian community as a message from the Muslim supremacist opposition to leave the country.
            […]The outcome for religious minorities in Syria could turn out to be worse than in Iraq. But all hope is not lost. Massive violence, some of it targeted, did indeed drive many Christians and Alawites from their homes in places like Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Qusair and al-Raqqah when the armed Islamist opposition gained local footholds and went to battle against the Syrian government. I have seen for myself extensive destruction in Homs. But I also found government-controlled Tartus Province on the Mediterranean coast to be a generally tranquil place where people go about their private business and practice their religious faith without oppressive interference from the side of the state. The bustling seaside city of Tartus exudes a spirit of defiant optimism. Over 400,000 displaced Syrians have sought refuge there. They include Christians and Alawites, but the overwhelming majority of the displaced are Sunnis.
            It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tartus Provice has largely, though not entirely escaped the horrors of the civil war. This is mainly because the armed Islamist insurgency has been unable to gain a foothold there. […]
            The burning question is: Do American policy-makers place high priority on securing the fundamental rights of all the peoples of Syria, and guaranteeing the existence of the endangered religious minorities in Syria? If so, the United States’ de facto war against the Syrian state - a state which has for decades been a prime protector of religious minorities - would end forthwith. Our government would use its leverage with its principle Sunni Islamist allies in the “coalition of the willing” for affecting regime change - namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar –to end their support for armed Muslim supremacist forces in Syria, and encourage them to turn their attention to providing Syrian-standard respect for religious freedom to their own citizens.
            The green light given to our Sunni regional allies to militarily destabilize Syria does not lend credibility to the human rights rhetoric that surrounds the United States’ regime change policy. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey may be beloved by America’s military and economic interests, but all have grave democracy deficits and cannot serve as models for religious pluralism and freedom religious. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are Sunni absolute monarchies. All religious minorities are banned in the former. Nearly one hundred years ago the Christian minorities were virtually eradicated in Turkey by means of genocide. Successive Turkish governments, including the current government of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, have taken patriotic pride in genocide denial. […]

   […] Though no religious community has been spared suffering, Syria’s ancient Christian minority has cause to believe that they confront an “existential threat,” according to a finding of the UN Human Right Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria, last December. And this group, in contrast to Syria’s Alawites, Shiites and Sunnis, has no defender.
[…]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. While in some neighborhoods they struggle to maintain defense committees, they lack militias of their own. Nor do they have protective tribal structures, or support from any outside power. Referencing Syria, Archbishop Elias Chacour, head of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Israel, remarked a few weeks ago that, while many people are facing hardship and dying in the Arab Spring, no group is suffering more than Christians.
The Christians, however, are not simply caught in the middle, as collateral damage. They are the targets of a more focused shadow war, one that is taking place alongside the larger conflict between the Shiite-backed Baathist Assad regime and the largely Sunni rebel militias. Christians are the targets of an ethno-religious cleansing by Islamist militants and courts. In addition, they have lost the protection of the Assad government, making them easy prey for criminals and fighters, whose affiliations are not always clear.
Wherever they appear, Islamist militias have made life impossible for the Christians. Metropolitan Archbishop Jean Clement Jeanbart, of Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church, told the Rome-based Catholic outlet, AsiaNews, "Christians are terrified by these militias and fear that in the event of their victory they would no longer be able to practice their religion and that they would be forced to leave the country."
He explained: “As soon as they reached the city[of Aleppo], Islamist guerrillas, almost all of them from abroad, took over the mosques. 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."
[…] Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East, who has been desperately working to cope with the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon and Iraq, wrote to me in February: “We are witnessing another Arab country losing its Christian Assyrian minority. When it happened in Iraq nobody believed Syria’s turn would come. Christian Assyrians are fleeing massively from threats, kidnappings, rapes and murders. Behind the daily reporting about bombs there is an ethno-religious cleansing taking place, and soon Syria can be emptied of its Christians.”
[…]Ordinary individuals, too, have been summarily killed after being identified as Christian. For example, Fides reported that a man named Yohannes was killed by an Islamist gunman who stopped the bus he was taking on the way to Aleppo and checked the background of  each passenger. When the gunman noticed Yohannes’ last name was Armenian, they singled him out for a search. After finding a cross around his neck, “One of the terrorists shot point blank at the cross tearing open the man’s chest.”
Such reports are not uncommon. A woman from Hassake recounted in December to Swedish journalist Nuri Kino how her husband and son were shot in the head by Islamists. “Our only crime is being Christians,” she answers when asked if there had been a dispute.
On February 13, 2013, the New York Times reported on Syrian refugee interviews it collected in Turkey: “One mother told of the abduction of a neighbor’s child, held for ransom by rebel fighters in her hometown of Al-Hasakah, which prompted her family to seek safety for their three young sons across the border in Turkey. A young man demonstrated how he was hung by his arms, robbed and beaten by rebels, ‘just for being a Christian.’”
            […]Swedish Assyrian journalist Nuri Kino, who travels to the region to interview Christian refugees from Syria recounts the story of Gabriel Staifo Malke, an 18-year-old who fled with his family from Hassake after his father was shot on July 17, 2012, for having a crucifix hanging from his car’s rear view mirror: The son told him: “In Hassake, terrorists had warned Christians that they would be killed if they didn’t leave town; there was no room left for us. Most of the others hid their religion, didn’t show openly that they were non-Muslims. But not Dad. After the funeral the threats against our family and other Christians increased. The terrorists called us and said that it was time to disappear; we had that choice, or we would be killed.”
            […]Christians, as well as others, also have been targeted with summary executions, forcible conversions to Islam and expulsions from their homes as a result of actions taken by the courts of the "Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant", the name the al-Nusra Brigade and other Islamist rebels use in reference to the Syrian territory under their control. The Christians find it impossible to survive under such rule.
            […]After a recent prayer walk in Jordan for the two kidnapped bishops, Syrian Christian refugees told Dutch blogger Martin Janssen that their village of 30 Christian families had a first hand taste of the rebels’ new sharia courts. One of Janssen’s accounts, as translated by renowned Australian linguist, writer and Anglican priest, the Rev. Mark Durie, follows:
“Jamil [an elderly man] lived in a village near Idlib where 30 Christian families had always lived peacefully alongside some 200 Sunni families. That changed dramatically in the summer of 2012. One Friday trucks appeared in the village with heavily armed and bearded strangers who did not know anyone in the village. They began to drive through the village with a loud speaker broadcasting the message that their village was now part of an Islamic emirate and Muslim women were henceforth to dress in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah. Christians were given four choices. They could convert to Islam and renounce their ‘idolatry.’ If they refused they were allowed to remain on condition that they pay the jizya. This is a special tax that non-Muslims under
Islamic law must pay for ‘protection.’ For Christians who refused there remained two choices: they could leave behind all their property or they would be slain. The word that was used for the latter in Arabic (dhabaha) refers to the ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals.”
            The man told Janssen that his and a number of other families began to pay the jizya but, after the amount demanded kept increasing over several months, the Christians decided to flee, leaving behind their farms and property. Some who could not pay or escape were forced to convert to Islam.
            An Orthodox cleric, independently corroborating such accounts, described conditions in the towns taken by rebel forces in the Christian valley outside Homs: “They 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. If they don’t pay the jizya they are simply killed.”
            […] When the jihadist rebel units take control of a town, like Ras al-Ayn, in Hassake province, it loses its Christian population over night, church sources further report. Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Eustathius Matta Roham, of Jazirah and Euphrates, confirms that churches and all Christian symbols have been destroyed in Ras al-Ayn.
Most information about these massacres and about the violence perpetrated by the regime comes from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), an organization set up by the Syrian opposition in London. Virtually all international news accounts republish the
Observatory’s reporting. According to AsiaNews: “For nearly two years, SOHR has reported only acts of violence by the regime against the rebels. Mainstream international media like the BBC, al Jazeera and al Arabya, have relied on it as their sole source of news.” […] 
The Center for Religious Freedom concludes that Syrian Christians are both trapped in a vise between the two sides of a brutal conflict, and specifically targeted in an ethno-religious cleansing campaign. The US administration is failing to address, or even notice, the particular situation of Syria’s Christians. Without delay, it should adopt the following policies:
            First, it is critical for the US to officially take notice that, while every group in Syria is suffering, the Christian minorities are currently particularly persecuted; as well as being caught in the middle of a terrible war, they are also the objects of a concerted religious cleansing campaign. The State Department’s Religious Freedom Reporton Syria, issued last month, notes blandly that: “Reports of harassment of Christians, mostly in the context of ongoing political unrest, increased during the year.” Also that: “Some Christians reported societal tolerance for Christians was dwindling and this was a major factor for the surge of emigration of Syrian Christians.” Few actual cases were cited by the State Department and there’s not the slightest hint in this gross understatement that the threat they face is an existential one.
            The situation of Christians and other minorities should be accurately reflected in a special report, one that Congress could mandate, and/or in official speeches, from the bully pulpits of our highest level officials. The fact that this cleansing is being missed is reason for the Congress to pass the resolution of Reps. Frank Wolf and Anna Eshoo mandating a special envoy for religious minorities in the Middle East.
            Second, US humanitarian aid must also be directed to the institutions that are caring for the Christian refugees. Generous American humanitarian aid – over $800 million – for Syrian refugees typically bypasses Christians since they are generally afraid to go to the camps, where they risk further persecution and attack. Churches and monasteries in Lebanon and Turkey are being overwhelmed with Christians escaping violence in Syria and these and similar such facilities need to be identified and provided assistance.
            Furthermore, humanitarian aid – and, in the future, reconstruction and development aid –is desperately needed inside Syria. The majority of Syrian Christians, and others, who have been driven from their homes are displaced within Syria and are in urgent need of assistance. The US should provide such aid and must ensure that –unlike in Iraq -- such aid actually reaches the Christians and other smaller minority communities and is not distributed solely through Assad government agencies, or existing opposition groups; aid to them should be distributed through Syrian Christian organizations, including, but not limited to, the churches.
            Third, while many Christians wish to continue living in Syria and we hope that the Christian community will remain in their homeland, the US must begin to accept large numbers of the Christian refugees who are not be able or willing to return to Syria and who cannot securely stay in the region. Because as a group, the Christian minority has not been linked to terror by either side, they do not require extensive background checks and their cases can be expedited. The LA Times recently reported that the Obama administration is considering resettling refugees who have fled Syria as part of an international effort that could bring thousands of the 1.5 million or more Syrian refugees currently in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East to the United States. According to a State Department official cited in the Times, the Department is "ready to consider the idea,” upon the receipt of a formal request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees. Washington usually accepts about half the refugees that the U.N. agency proposes for resettlement, the paper reports. However, because many Christians avoid registering and entering UN camps for fear of being victimized, they are not likely to appear in the High Commissioner’s request. Hence, the administration should ensure that unregistered Christian refugees are included in any resettlement plan, and that their cases are not delayed by unnecessary terrorist background checks.
            Fourth, as the administration distributes support, weapons and other aid, lethal and non-lethal, to the members of the Free Syrian Army, it must ensure that none goes, directly or indirectly, to those responsible for religious persecution and cleansing against any group. In addition, the US should ensure that policing assistance needed for the defense of Christian neighborhoods and villages is provided.
            Fifth, the US should make a peaceful settlement in Syria among its highest foreign policy priorities. It should do so in consultations that include appropriate and fair representation of Christian and other small minorities, including through their civic leaders. Charges must be taken seriously by the Syriac National Council of Syria, a coalition of Syrian Christians groups and leaders, that the Syrian National Coalition, with which the West regularly consults, is dominated by Islamist groups and does not include authentic Christian voices.
            Any settlement must ensure religious pluralism and freedom through a democratic constitution guaranteeing religious freedom, freedom of expression, personal security, and full recognition of the rights of all minorities, as well as other political and civil rights, including the right to equality under the law for women. Guarantees must be provided against Syria’s Talibanization through the forcible imposition of sharia by sharia courts, Islamist security forces, or religious police.

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