Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria is a threat to the sensitive Christian communities rebuilding in a country that lost the vast majority of its Christian population, Aid to the Church in Need Director of Outreach Edward Clancy told Breitbart News.
Aid to the Church in Need, a papal charity of the Catholic Church that supports persecuted Christians globally, released a study last week finding that persecution against Christians has diminished somewhat in light of the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Also contributing to that decline, however, is the near-complete eradication of Christians in some areas. Clancy discussed the aid group’s findings with Breitbart News in a conversation last week.
Discussing northeastern Syria, Clancy noted, “that was a very well-established Christian community there. There were 30-35 towns and cities along the [Khabur] river banks where Christian communities live.”
“There had been a renaissance of sorts there. There had been a regrowth of the Christian culture because they were living, there was a place to work, there were good, arable fields,” he noted. “That’s being, in a sense, wiped away now in that all of these towns along the river are becoming targeted by the Turkish incursion, or whatever happens between Turkey, the Kurds, and Syria, so those are the people who will be forced to go into Kurdish Iraq.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced “Operation Peace Spring,” an invasion of northern Syria to eradicate the indigenous, mostly Kurdish population and replace them with mostly Arab refugees currently in Turkey, this month. The operation officially ended following a ceasefire agreement brokered by Russia, but that agreement requires the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the mostly Kurdish U.S.-backed militia responsible for defeating the Islamic State in its “capital” of Raqqa, to evacuate the Syrian regions near the Turkish border. The SDF has repeatedly accused the Turkish military and its allied Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia of violating the ceasefire.
Erdogan, who has referred to the Armenian genocide as “the most reasonable action that could be taken” at the time, attempted to reassure ethnic and religious minorities in Syria upon announcing the invasion by falsely alleging, “Turkey has never committed any civilian massacre in its history and it never will.”
Christian community leaders expressed concern immediately following the announcement of Turkey’s operation.
“They are targeting residential areas in Qamishli, where people of all religious backgrounds live,” Bassam Ishak, a Syriac Christian leader, told NPR this month, referring to a Syrian city with an ancient Christian population. “We think this is a message to the Kurds and Christians there to leave, so Turkey can move refugees there. We think it’s a form of ethnic cleansing.”
The Turkish attack reportedly damaged Christian churches in towns near Qamishli in the region as well as the city’s Christian neighborhoods.
The presence of recovering Christian communities in Kurdish areas highlights a general tendency for Kurdish leaders to tolerate their presence in a way that other regional factions – and, of course, the Islamic State – did not. Clancy noted that Kurdish leaders in Iraq and Syria have taken in Christians in part because of Western concern for them, and the West “understands that in each Christian community, you have what represents people who act as agents of dialogue, in that their presence allows more [Arab] Sunni and Shia and Kurds to interact and address problems with less battling.”
He adds that Christians benefit Kurdish communities by “support[ing] institutions that help society.”
“They tend to support more educational institutions. We see this in Archbishop [Bashar] Warda [of Erbil] building the Catholic University of Erbil – during a time of war and destruction, what is he doing? He’s building a university and he is going to start training future leaders and future professionals,” Clancy noted.
“You see the institution of education being important to Christians, that is one of the foundation stones,” he continued. “You see the philosophy of living in a multicultural society being expressed. You don’t hear about any of the major churches preaching ‘we need to have walls around us and we’re never going to interact with them and they are our enemy,’ you hear the opposite.”
“If the Christian communities disappear, there is a good chance that these catalysts go away and the more bellicose, problematic people become more powerful and more active and more potent,” Clancy predicted.
Kurdish leaders are under pressure – in Syria, from the Turkish invasion, and in Iraq, from growing refugee flows – that also trickles down to Christian communities, however. Clancy noted that the Christians slowly rebuilding in the area Turkey invaded will likely be the ones to flee across the border to Iraqi Kurdistan, where reports indicate a boom in human trafficking following the launch of “Operation Peace Spring.” The capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil, has already taken in over half of the 229,000 Syrian refugees in Iraq, according to the United Nations. While Christian populations already in Erbil have helped absorb the large refugee flows, Clancy said, “it’s like a branch that is bent … how much more tension can you put on different communities?”
Clancy added that in Erbil, following the initial attacks on Iraqi Christian communities by the Islamic State, Kurdish officials bristled at having to accommodate thousands of Christian children in Kurdish schools. But those pressures differ significantly from what Christians returning to non-Kurdish former ISIS strongholds are facing.
“In some of the newly returning communities of Christians, you hear about this Shia movement to place mosques or other things in front of Christian places of worship that use PA systems or loudspeakers to blast Muslim prayer and try to dishearten the Christian population,” Clancy noted, “and you hear about the effort to, say, buy up Christian land or to try to take over Christian properties.”
“There’s always going to be upset because even in Kurdish Iraq, in the area where the Christians are in the Erbil region, they are a minority, they are subject to the rule of someone else and they always have to live very tentatively in a sense even though there is establishment,” he added.
The Christian communities under Kurdish control are some of the only ones remaining in Syria and Iraq. Aid to the Church in Need’s recent report, titled Persecuted and Forgotten?, estimated that Iraq has lost 90 percent of its Christian population. Syria, Clancy said, had lost about “at least 75 percent.”
Christianity may be at the peak of extinction, but Clancy noted there was still hope in the small but determined group of Christians who insist on maintaining a presence in a region converted to their religion by the first generation of followers of Jesus.
“Of course there is hope, and the hope is [in] people who don’t leave, they stay there,” he said. “These people always offer hope, they do things that are superhuman, some people may say crazy, but they truly believe that they should be there and they should stay.”