Friday, September 20, 2013

An-Nahar on Syrian Christian Refugees

Arabic original, from an-Nahar here.

Displacement and Emigration of Christians from Syria-- Between Reality and Assumptions

by Pierre Atallah

The claim that there are 450 thousand Syrian Christians who have fled Syria provokes doubt and horror and bears interpretation and a suspicion of exaggeration in its political, social, and psychological aspects, that some are trying to profit from historical Christian fears of a repeat of the massacres of 1860. The claim that such a dangerously large number has emigrated would mean that around a quarter of Syrian Christians have fled a country where 10% of the population was made up of various Christian groups, or around two million Syrian nationals. If the recent situation in Maaloula is taken into account, along with its serious psychological impact, then one can understand the background of the psychological war and terror that is being waged against Syrian Christians to force them to leave their land.

In accounts of the reality of the situation of Syrian Christians in regions subject to displacement during the war, a dark image appears which might not be acceptable to some politicians, especially in Lebanon, which is divided between supporters and opponents of the Syrian regime. The gist of these reports is that the approximate number of 450 thousand refugees is a speculation, given the absence of any body conducting a census or monitoring or any social or political organization concerned with the state of Christian refugees apart from refugees from all sects. Thus there has been no account made of who has fled and who has remained, only anecdotal accounts and general information.

Aleppo and Northeast Syria are the Worst Cases

The worst case of displacement of Christians is the city of Aleppo, whose Christians numbered 150 thousand before the Civil War, while only 70 to 80 thousand now remain. The kidnapping of Metropolitans Boulos Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim lead to exacerbated tension, feelings of fear and insecurity. One of the most prominent groups to emigrate is the Armenians, many of whom have left to Armenia after the government in Yerevan offered them easier immigration, despite the Armenian political parties' rejecting this. Many of those concerned with the Christian emigrants from Aleppo and its surroundings say that half of those who have left Aleppo have headed to Turkey, Sweden, and Greece, using every possible means to depart, some using illegal means or practicing forgery. The other half of those who left Aleppo-- some 35 thousand people-- "live on rumors, awaiting developments in the situation in Syria or the arrangement of papers for emigration."

The second region whose Christians have been struck with the catastrophe of displacement and emigration, just like all Syrians, is the strip along the Turkish border stretching from Ras el-Ayn, recently enveloped in fighting between Jabhat el-Nusra and Kurdish fighters over control over the town, due to its strategic location. This fighting has led to the displacement of all Christians toward Aleppo and the interior of Syria, seeking safety. Along the border there is also a village called al-Darbasiyah, populated by Syriac and Armenian Catholics, all of whose Christians have fled due to military activity and the actions of al-Nusra and similar groups. The adjacent village of Amouda has also been abandoned by Christians. As for Qamishly, a large proportion of its Christians have remained, under the protection of the Kurds. The same applies to Hesake, over half of whose Christians have fled. In the story of displacement from the region bordering Turkey, residents of Assyrian towns and villages like Tel Juma, Tel Tamr, Tel el-Tawil and others have almost been emptied of residents after a large proportion of them moved to Lebanon, spurred on by a desire to go to Sweden, which shelters a large Syriac and Assyrian diaspora from Iraq and Syria. Reports indicate that the city of Bu Kamal and the Syriac towns and villages around it have been almost completely emptied of Christians because of the domination of the region by extremists, even though the Syriacs and Assyrians stood alongside the opposition when it was launched peacefully.

In sum, it appears that there is a campaign to cleanse the region east of the Euphrates of Christians and moderate Muslims.

Christians in the region of Homs have been struck with the scourge of displacement, starting with that city whose neighborhoods were populated with Christians, Sunnis, and Alawites, and then on to the countryside. The most prominent village subject to displacement is Qusayr, whose Muslim and Christians residents fled after it became a war zone, while Rablah and other Christian and Shiite towns and villages in the area survived.

Varying Situations

In further accounts, the Christian presence in Hama has always been weak and few Christian families live there. The large Christian presence in that region is centered in the cities of Mhardeh (hometown of Patriarch Hazim) and Suqaylabiya, whose residents are Greek Orthodox. Even though the two towns have been subject to attack, they have persevered, have not fallen, and have not fled. According to reports, to the Northwest of Aleppo two Christian towns near Ariha, al-Ghanimiya and Kanasda, have been displaced. Their residents, who are Roman Catholic, were subjected to attacks and so fled to other areas of Syria, especially Wadi al-Nasara and the coastal region.

In southern Syria, along the Jordanian border, in Hawran, Derah and Swayda reports indicate that the Christians' situation is somewhat stable, resembling the situation of all Syrians. It is said that the presence of a liberal opposition and the weak presence of Islamist extremists has led to an absence of kidnappings, extortion and the destruction of churches witnessed in northern Syria and so consequently a modicum of calm.

"Getting Along with All"

The Syrian writer Gebran Saad describes the situation of Christian Syrians, "They have lived in Northeast Syria with Kurds and Bedouin, along the coast with Alawites, with Druze in the South, and in the cities with Sunnis, getting along with all elements of Syrian society in a civil and peaceful way, even as those elements did not get along with each other. This is the strongest and most important point in their personality and their civilizational presence. Thus they do not have their own isolated entities, with the exception of Wadi al-Nasara."

In his view, "The Christians have tried to work within secular political organizations to express their non-sectarian position, but the price was great. As for Georges Sabra or Michel Kilo, they do not express the position of the Christian grassroots." Saad accuses the Syrian opposition of "causing Christians and minorities to refrain from supporting it because of the vagueness of its plan. Sometimes they call for a civil Syrian state within an Islamic vision, while sometimes they call for Islam to be the source of legislation or other such word games."

Embassies Deny Facilitating Emigration

Embassies that grant emigration visas in Lebanon say that they do not distinguish between Muslim and Christian Syrians and that all who meet the conditions obtain visas. The embassies deny rumors that they facilitate emigration for Christians. This is the position given by the American, French, and Canadian diplomatic missions when they were contacted, with the observation that they have not noticed any increased application for visas from Syrians. With the exception of Germany, which has allowed five thousand Syrians to enter as refugees, things continue as normal. There remains Sweden and the Scandinavian countries, where it is said that many Syriacs have arrived, legally or illegally.

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