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'There will come a time when there will be no more Christians in Syria'

Comment: Dr Patrick Sookhdeo outlines the visit to Washington of Syrian Church leaders organised recently by Barnabas Fund ...

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund comments on taking a delegation of senior Syrian Church leaders to Washington

“We can accept being marked for destruction if it’s by our Lord. But we will not accept it if it is by terrorists, whether Saudis, or from Qatar or any other nation.”
The Rev Adib Awad, general secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon

Last week, Barnabas Fund and our colleagues at the Westminster Institute in the US sponsored a delegation of senior Syrian Church leaders to visit Washington to raise the plight of the Christian community in the war-ravaged country. It was the first time since the start of the civil war in March 2011 that such a visit had taken place.

We participated in a panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation on 27 January titled: “Marked for Destruction: The Plight of Syria’s Christians”. The church leaders spoke of the unbelievable atrocities that have been committed by rebel groups.

Bishop Armash Nalbandian, primate of the Armenian Church of Damascus, told a horrific story of two Armenian Christians from Aleppo who were travelling on a bus that was stopped by opposition fighters. They took the Christians away and returned to the bus later with a box, saying it contained cakes. Inside were the heads of the two seized Christians.

This was just one of many shocking individual incidents recounted, which amount to a targeted campaign against the Christian community in Syria.

More than 1,200 Christians were reportedly martyred in 2013 alone; over 600,000 Christians have fled the country with even more being internally displaced; and an estimated 30-40 churches have been seriously damaged or completely destroyed.

Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian pastor from Homs and former president of the Middle East Council of Churches, said: "If this continues the way it is, there will come a time when there will be no more Christians in Syria."

The purpose of the delegation was to raise awareness about the deliberate targeting of Christians in Syria and also to try to persuade the US to shape its foreign policy in the region to help the vulnerable minority.

Christians are being kidnapped, raped and killed by Islamic militants who are backed and armed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.

The Syrian church leaders took their case to policymakers and officials at the State Department, Democrat and Republican members of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and also the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and the US Institute for Peace.

They called on the US to recognise a new “axis of evil”, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, using the phrase coined by former President George W Bush in 2002 to describe Iran, Iraq and North Korea because of their support for terrorism.

Specifically, they urged the US to put pressure on its allies to stop supporting and sending terrorist fighters to Syria.

Our delegation was received sympathetically by many departments within the US administration, but there was no assurance of support for the Christian minority.

The Syrian Church leaders have faced fierce criticism for getting too involved in politics. But all they asked for was a political solution following the Geneva II process, rather than a military solution. They were erroneously reported to be pro-Assad and pro-Hezbollah because they highlighted the atrocities being committed against Christians by opposition forces. But they expressed opposition to all nations and groups engaged in violence in Syria. They went so far as to ask the US that no nation should be allowed to send in foreign fighters.

Some would say, why should clergymen and the Church be involved? Sometimes taking such a stand can make a huge difference.

In the darkest days of the troubles in Northern Ireland, with British forces pitted against the IRA, clergy were at the heart of a grassroots movement from which a peace process was eventually able to emerge. In 1999, Presbyterian minister the Rev. Ken Newell and Catholic priest Father Gerry Reynolds, who brought people together in the cross-community Clonard-Fitzroy group, were awarded the Pax Christi International Peace Prize for their efforts.

We must believe today that the courage of my colleagues from Syria will one day bear fruit and that through their efforts, peace will come to Syria and ultimately Lebanon and the region. This would be a glorious day, not just for the beleaguered Christian communities, but also for the many good, decent Muslims in the region who yearn for peace and an end to religious extremism. 

When politicians and statesmen fail, it falls to the Church to stand in the gap.

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