By Okke Ornstein
The biggest threats facing many Christians in war-torn Syria are the militant jihadist groups linked to al-Qaida, which want to establish a caliphate across the Levant ruled by the laws of their extremist brand of Islam.
In their members’ view, those who are not “true Muslims” deserve to be killed, and Christians most certainly qualify.
“I think my cousin was killed just because he had a Christian cross dangling from the rear-view mirror of his car,” Abraham Tunc, a representative of the Assyrian community in the Netherlands, told Newsmax.
Christians in Syria make up about 10 percent of the population, with the largest concentration living in and around Aleppo, which is now the scene of an all-out assault by the Syrian army on the various rebel groups that control most of the city.
Outside a Greek Orthodox church in Damascus, what appeared at first glance to be a Nativity scene is instead a small improvised space to remember those who were killed during the ongoing war.
The wall is covered with portraits and stories about atrocities: A family was dragged out of their house and murdered, a man was killed by a bomb. Others suffered even more gruesome treatment.
“We lost about 200 members of our community because of the war,” a church volunteer told Newsmax.
“It all started as protests. People wanted more freedom, which everybody understood. And then it became war and we are where we are today,” he added.
On Christmas Day in Damascus, the war was never far away. At the Greek Orthodox al-Salib Church, the sound of cannon fire could be heard between songs at Christmas Mass.
The church’s neighborhood in Damascus has been transformed into a heavily fortified compound. On every road there are two military checkpoints, and no cars, not even those with an official permit, are allowed to pass through.
On Christmas there was more security at the church gate where volunteers used scanners to make sure nobody carried guns or explosives inside. A surprisingly high number of visitors attended the service, lighting candles.
“Actually, visits have gone up since the start of the war,” explained the volunteer, who asked not to be named for safety reasons.
The Greek Orthodox Church is the oldest and largest Christian community in Syria, and al-Salib’s neighborhood is one of the wealthier in Damascus, reflected by the number of fur coats and other expensive fashion items people were wearing on Christmas.
Not surprisingly, the volunteer said that “you’ll find that most people here are very much pro-Assad.”
In February, Syria’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Levant and Antioch John al-Yaziji met with President Bashar Assad and was quoted by state media expressing his confidence that Syria would come out victorious from its crisis.
The Greek Orthodox community is far from the only Christian group in Syria. Throughout the country, but mostly in the north, there are other Orthodox as well as Catholic groups.
Many Christians have fled, most of them to other parts of Syria or to Turkey. A vast number of them are Assyrians, an ethnic group with origins in ancient Mesopotamia which now inhabits roughly the same area as the Kurdish people in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.
Those who can afford it, or who have family in Europe, often travel to Germany, the Netherlands, or other countries, either legally or with the aid of smugglers, Tunc said.
This often leads to harrowing scenes when rickety boats capsize on their voyage from Turkey to EU member Greece, or when refugees get stuck, abused, and extorted at the Eastern European frontiers. One of Tunc’s relatives narrowly escaped death in a boat accident while trying to make her way from embattled Syria to the safety of Europe.
Tunc has lived in Europe since long before war broke out in Syria, but he still has relatives in Aleppo with whom he sometimes manages to talk on the phone. He explained that the situation there is dangerous and some members of his extended family were killed and others now live in Turkey, near the border.
Just months ago, the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, which is an ally of Iran and the Assad regime, drove out al-Qaida linked groups from the northwestern coastal part of Syria, where many Christian minorities live.
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