A giant statue of Jesus erected on a Syrian mountain last month is unlikely to assuage the growing fear of the country’s dwindling Christian minority amid a resurgence of Islamist groups.
Footage from Syria showing fundamentalist rebels targeting Christian clerics and religious icons has gone viral on social media recently, evoking comments ranging from fury to disbelief.
“Where are you, O Assad, and where are you, O Syrian Army, to save us from these primitives?” commented one Christian man on his Facebook page, displaying a video of Islamist Sheikh Omar Raghba smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary in the village of Yakubiya as he announces that “Allah alone will be worshiped in the Levant.”
That was one of the tamer videos. A clip posted on the Facebook page of Lebanese news channel Al-Mayadeen on October 29 featured a shirtless Christian man pleading on the floor as he is whipped by another man towering over him. A grisly video purportedly featuring the public beheading of a Syrian priest and two youths by members of Al-Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, amid shouts of “Allahu Akbar,” uploaded to a Facebook page called My Church on October 23, was shared over 9,000 times.
“If this is your Islam, may God curse it,” commented one man on one of the videos.
“They torture everyone and make no religious distinction between Muslim, Christian or Jew,” replied another.
The plight of Syria’s Christians came to the fore when rebels from Al-Nusra Front took control of the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, northeast of Damascus, in early September. The Syrian army soon regained control of the village, but reports of the mistreatment of Christians and desecration of churches in Maaloula soon emerged. Similar attacks on churches have been documented over the past month in the towns of Raqqa, Sadad and Tel Abyadh.
On October 10, the European Parliament condemned the attack on Maaloula and its Christian environs, calling for “monasteries in the region to be protected and for immediate support and humanitarian assistance to nuns and orphans trapped in the Convent of St Tekla.”
Patriarch Gregorios III Laham, the spiritual leader of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, told the BBC last month that nearly a third of Syria’s estimated Christian population of 1.75 million has been displaced or left the country.
Many Christians still regard President Bashar Assad, a member of the heterodox Alawite sect, as the safeguard to their viability in the country. Assad has often portrayed himself as the defender of Syria’s religious minorities.
But some, like the opposition’s Syrian National Council leader George Sabra (himself an Orthodox Christian), denied that Syria’s Christian minority was in any greater danger than the country’s Muslim population.
“Churches [in Syria] are being destroyed just like mosques and the bombs dropped by planes sent by Bashar Assad do not distinguish between Christian and Muslim,” Sabra told opposition news website Zaman Al-Wasl on Sunday. “Nothing threatens Christians in Syria more than the [Assad] regime remaining. Christians will be safe when the rest of the Syrians are safe.”
Sabra said that the “tendentious propaganda” about a unique threat to Christians was fabricated by the Assad regime.
“Christians in Syria do not need Bashar Assad or any other regime to protect them,” he said.
International Christian groups such as the Switzerland-based Christian Solidarity International contest that assertion. The organization’s American chapter recently issued a “genocide alert” calling on US President Barack Obama to intervene and protect Syria’s religious minorities against targeted attacks.
“Without the support of American Christians and others of good will, these communities will continue to be victimized and forced to flee their homelands,” read the appeal.