Christians all throughout the Middle East have been fleeing the rise of radical Islamist guerrillas since the start of the Syrian Civil War, quickening their pace after the Islamic State emptied Mosul, Iraq, of its Christian population. Several thousand Syriac Christians remain in Syria, however, adamant about claiming the land to which they lent their name.
The UK Independent‘s Robert Fisk interviewed a number of Christian laymen and clergymen in Qamishli, a Syrian town whose Christian population has significantly dwindled over time, in large part due to fears that Islamist terrorists will overrun the area. Clergymen, in particular, were adamant that they must remain in the region to preserve their heritage and keep the territory Christian. Qamishli, Fisk notes, is about 15 miles from where the Islamic State has managed to establish bases in Syria.
Qamishli is home to about 5,000 Christians, a tragedy for Christian leaders there. One priest, identified as Fr. Saliba, who has lost about half his congregation, explained the sense of loss to Fisk: “ISIS did many things during this period to frighten us, so our people are migrating. Of course, as a church we don’t want anyone to migrate. But what can we do?”
The priests appeared to agree that the Islamic State had backers in the region who also had an interest in eradicating Christianity. Said one clergyman, “We all know this was funded by the Gulf States.” Others condemned the idea of leaving for the West, expressing understanding for those who have fled, but also expressing belief that church leaders have a responsibility to remain. The interviews occurred at a wedding, celebrated publicly and in full view of any jihadist who may have been in the area. The Christians who remain have no plans to go underground.
Elsewhere in the region, Christians have taken up arms and continued practicing their religion openly. In Lebanon, where the Islamic State has not yet arrived but enjoys a disturbing level of popularity, this has led to a potential worst case scenario: Christians taking up arms alongside the Shi’ite terrorist group Hezbollah to fight the Islamic State. While Hezbollah has no especial affinity for Christians, their alarm at the rise of the Sunni terrorist group has led to some peculiar alliances.
For Christians, there is cause for alarm. Incidents of vandalism against churches and Christian areas in Lebanon are on the rise, just as the nation increases its requests that the international community help carry the burden of thousands of Syrian refugees flooding its borders.
Christian Syrians who have fled have repeatedly reprimanded the international community for ignoring their pleas for help. The massacre of Christians in Syria is nothing new and a pivotal aspect of that nation’s civil war. “We have shouted aid to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience?” Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh said a year ago. “Where is the human consciousness? Where are my brothers?”