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Caught in the middle: Christians suffer amid Syria's civil war   12/08/2013

Muslims around the world have been marking the end of their holy month of Ramadan which concluded with the feast of Eid al-Fitr on Thursday. Pope Francis sent a personal message marking this special feast day, expressing his “esteem and friendship for all Muslims, especially those who are religious leaders.”
Focusing on the theme ‘Promoting mutual respect through education’, the message stresses the importance of thinking, speaking and writing respectfully about others and always avoiding unfair criticism or defamation. Families, schools, religious teaching and the media, it says, all have a role to play in achieving this goal.Underlining the importance of positive interreligious relations, the Pope says Christians and Muslims are called to respect the teachings, symbols, values and especially the leaders and places of worship of the other religion.
To find out more about the impact of this papal message on Christian-Muslim dialogue, Philippa Hitchen spoke to Archbishop Kevin McDonald, head of the English and Welsh bishops’ office for interfaith relations:

"I think it's very significant because Pope Francis has emerged as an international figure, people are talking about him and he's very much part of the landscape so I think the fact that he is sending a message in person has been very well received....
At the Bishops Conference we circulate it to all dioceses and send it to a long list of Muslim contacts, but we also encourage priests at the local level to take it round to their mosques....so it has quite a wide circulation....

I think there is a lot of goodwill in England....we had this awful event of the killing of Lee Rigby and shortly after that, I and other religious leaders were invited to the local mosque and we had a very good meeting.....I felt there was a very real sense that we need to do something together...I think there's an increasing number of people in this country who do have a sense that they need to nurture their young people in a different kind of way and to take steps to counteract any danger of radicalisation - the picture is mixed but there are a lot of positive signs....."

“They do not only pose a threat to the regime,” he said. “The also pose a threat to the FSA and all other minorities.”

George's wife Helena said her priorities were returning to Aleppo with her family and having a safe life.

She added: "Damn you, Bashar and the opposition. How do you want me to stand with one of them when I lost my home because of them?"

Many religions including Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox and the Roman Catholic church have followers in Syria.

“The Christian presence [in Syria] extends literally into Biblical times,” said Father Michael Ellias, a priest at St Mary’s Antiochan Church in Bay Ridge, New York. “We read that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians in the [ancient Syrian] town of Antioch. So our presence literally goes to the very foundations of the faith.”

While the community has largely remained neutral throughout the conflict, that hasn’t stopped Christians from being targeted.

In April, two Syriac Orthodox bishops were kidnapped by gunmen. They were later released unharmed. Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need has accused al Qaeda-linked groups of engaging in the "ethnic cleansing" of Christians.

“If you’re a Christian, you’re worried,” said Dr Nadim Shehadi, an associate at London-based think tank Chatham House. “The Christians have maintained a neutrality which can be seen as being on the side of the regime or vice versa.”

He added that they had kept a much lower profile since Islamist extremists started to appear in the country.

Amjad Hadad is one of the few Christians to take up arms. The 37-year-old said Christian silence should not be interpreted as support for Assad.

“We are fighting beside our Sunni brothers, Alewites, Shiites , Jews and Druze, and all other sects and minorities against the Syrian regime," said Hadad, the commander of a Christian batallion of the FSA. "It's our duty."

He added: “We are part of the Syrian people, we shared with these people joy and happiness and beautiful days and now we must share with them in these difficult days."

However, many others have fled their homes instead of fighting.

Todd Daniels, regional manager for the Middle East for the non-denominational watchdog International Christian Concern, last week met with many Syrians who had escaped to Turkey. He said many were frightened to go to refugee camps, even after fleeing across the border.

“They are scared of being identified as Christians, because they fear violence against them,” he said. “The Turkish government opened a camp with a partition for Christians, but as of two weeks ago there wasn’t a single Christian in there, because of that fear.”

He added that some refugees had sought refuge in churches and many were trying to rent apartments on their own as they try to avoid persecution.

However, others have been unwilling or unable to leave -- like those in the Mar Elias home for the elderly near the front line in Aleppo -- a city where some of the fiercest fighting has taken place.

Situated in an area controlled by the FSA, many of the senior citizens have been cut off from their families who live in regime-held parts of the city.

Abu Yussef, a Muslim who guards the home, said his group secured food for its residents, made sure they could get to church every Sunday and had warned both their fighters and members of the community not to inconvenience them.

“I feel like we are one family,” he said. “There is something magical connecting me with the elderly house and its residents.”

But despite such efforts, others expressed fears about returning to their homeland.

Dr. Talal al-Abdullah is a member of the Syrian National Council who left for Turkey about 18 months ago.

“I left Syria as a Syrian,” he said. “But now with the presence of the Islamist fanatic groups if I return I will be seen as a Christian and this is worrying me very much.”



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