- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Arab Spring has not been kind to Christians, and Syria is a good example: The nation’s 2 million-plus Christians are caught in the middle of a Muslim war.

Jihadist rebels threaten and kidnap them while coercing others to become Muslims. Government troops loyal to President Bashar Assad order them to fight the opposition or face death.

A Christian bishop this year fled the northern area for Vienna to escape Syria’s secret police. He suspected they planned to kill him for not cooperating. In June, al Qaeda sympathizers beheaded a Catholic priest and proudly posted online cellphone videos of the bloody scene.

“The Christians have been practically targeted by both sides,” said Emanuel Aydin, a bishop of the Syrian Orthodox Church. “There is always some tension between Alawites, Shiites and Sunni Muslims, and in the middle are the Christians.”

Mr. Assad belongs to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and rules over Syria’s majority Sunnis. Christians account for about 10 percent of Syria’s 22 million people.

Bishop Aydin, who is based in Vienna, was in the U.S. in July to garner support for his Institute for Peace in the Orient, which helps refugees resettle. He spoke Sunday at a New York benefit concert featuring Japanese soprano Seiko Lee.

“The Christians in Syria are helpless,” said David Eaton, who co-produced the concert. “Muslim families are supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Muslim countries. Many Christians are, therefore, forced to convert to Islam in order to survive.”

Bishop Aydin was in New Jersey, home to at least five Syrian Orthodox churches, and spoke through an interpreter. He estimated that about 500,000 Syrian Christians have fled the war for Lebanon, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.

Mr. Eaton said some Syrian Christian refugees are “dumped” into countries with no money or place to live.

The bishop said about 300 Christians have been killed during the civil war, which began in March 2011. He said it is impossible to know exactly how many, but added that many are caught in crossfire situations or live in buildings bombed by the government or the rebels.

Two months ago, a Syrian Orthodox and a Greek Orthodox bishop were kidnapped. The institute is trying to raise money to pay any ransom.

The group’s goal is democracy and freedom of religion for Syria.

“The main objective of this institute is to bring peace to all people of Syria,” Bishop Aydin said. “There are so many different jihadist groups penetrating villages and towns it is hard sometimes to pinpoint which group is responsible for kidnapping, killing. In general, we always hear jihadists want to impose Shariah [Islamic law] in the county. They are not thinking about spreading democracy.”

According to the group Support Syrian Christians, the Arab Spring has not been kind to believers in Jesus Christ. Autocratic regimes, such as Mr. Assad’s, that have provided some protection have given way to Islamic rulers, or rebels, who allow persecution of Christians.

“Arab Spring revolutions that have toppled governments have not lent an encouraging precedent to the Christians of Syria,” the group said in a report about current conditions.

“Church burnings and a series of anti-Coptic Christian riots have accompanied the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Two-thirds of Iraqi Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein, and now in Syria there are reports of Christian communities being terrorized as they are caught in a civil war between the regime and the Free Syria Army.”

A Franciscan priest, the Rev. Francois Murad, was beheaded by jihadists in June after fighters for the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel group, attacked a monastery where he was staying in Edlib. The northwestern city is a Sunni stronghold, with a small Christian population.

The trends for Christians in the Middle East are not promising. They made up 20 percent of the population a century ago, but about 5 percent today.

Like Iraq, Syria will lose its religious diversity under Islamic leadership unless Western governments take more active stances to protect Christians, the report says.

Besides Syrian Orthodox, with headquarters in Damascus, 10 other Christian denominations were active in the country.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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