“If you gave me a plane ticket and a visa to Germany, I’d go to the airport now.” Sitting in a dimly lit room crowded with fellow Christian refugees, Stephanos Giorgis could be forgiven for wanting a future outside the Middle East.
This young man had escaped from his home town of Rableh in western Syria after a ransom was paid following his abduction by an Islamist group. The extremists had threatened to kill him and a number of others after they refused to abandon their faith.
Almost all who made up Rableh’s large Christian community had fled for their lives, mostly to neighbouring Lebanon, which is where we met Stephanos. The exodus has been replicated in so many Syrian towns and cities, as we discovered when our small delegation from Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, visited the region.
A central finding of our trip was that unless there is a radical change in Syria’s fortunes, time is running out for the country’s Christian community.
We found that Christians in Syria are fleeing their homes at a far higher rate than hitherto reported. Almost every Christian we spoke to on the subject said they were avowed supporters of President Assad, and many went further, claiming that unless he emerged victorious in Syria’s civil war the country’s Christians would drain away.
If this is true, then the government’s apparent triumph over ISIS in the ancient city of Palmyra over the Easter weekend could be a crucial turning-point in the survival of Syria’s Christian community.
In the eyes of many, such military success could not come a moment too soon. When, a year ago, a European Parliament motion on the conflict in Syria claimed that 700,000 of Syria’s 1.25 million Christians had fled, there was widespread concern that the figures were exaggerated.
But the research we conducted while we were there suggested that the figure for the number of displaced and refugee Christians could now be nearer a million.
Proportionately, this is far higher than the exodus figures for the Syrian population as a whole. We spoke to our project partners in those centres where Aid to the Church in Need is providing urgent help (food, water, medicine and shelter), and they were able to give us some realistic figures.
Until the war broke out in spring 2011, Aleppo was home to the largest number of Christians, but we were told that the faithful had now dwindled from 200,000 to close to 35,000 – a decline of 85 per cent.
The second-largest Christian community in Syria before the war was in Homs, but when we visited the city, at a time of continuing insecurity, Church leaders said the numbers had slumped by an astonishing 95 per cent – 40,000 down to barely 2,000. Even in regions where the Syrian government had largely succeeded in the struggle against militants, the decline was still very marked.