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Flight of a million Christians

A Syrian refugee girl in Turkey holds a picture of St Michael the Archangel (PA)

“If you gave me a plane ticket and a visa to Germany, I’d go to the airport now.” Sitting in a dimly lit room crowded with fellow Christian refugees, Stephanos Giorgis could be forgiven for wanting a future outside the Middle East.

This young man had escaped from his home town of Rableh in western Syria after a ransom was paid following his abduction by an Islamist group. The extremists had threatened to kill him and a number of others after they refused to abandon their faith.

Almost all who made up Rableh’s large Christian community had fled for their lives, mostly to neighbouring Lebanon, which is where we met Stephanos. The exodus has been replicated in so many Syrian towns and cities, as we discovered when our small delegation from Aid to the Church in Need, the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, visited the region.

A central finding of our trip was that unless there is a radical change in Syria’s fortunes, time is running out for the country’s Christian community.

We found that Christians in Syria are fleeing their homes at a far higher rate than hitherto reported. Almost every Christian we spoke to on the subject said they were avowed supporters of President Assad, and many went further, claiming that unless he emerged victorious in Syria’s civil war the country’s Christians would drain away.

If this is true, then the government’s apparent triumph over ISIS in the ancient city of Palmyra over the Easter weekend could be a crucial turning-point in the survival of Syria’s Christian community.

In the eyes of many, such military success could not come a moment too soon. When, a year ago, a European Parliament motion on the conflict in Syria claimed that 700,000 of Syria’s 1.25 million Christians had fled, there was widespread concern that the figures were exaggerated.

But the research we conducted while we were there suggested that the figure for the number of displaced and refugee Christians could now be nearer a million.

Proportionately, this is far higher than the exodus figures for the Syrian population as a whole. We spoke to our project partners in those centres where Aid to the Church in Need is providing urgent help (food, water, medicine and shelter), and they were able to give us some realistic figures.

Until the war broke out in spring 2011, Aleppo was home to the largest number of Christians, but we were told that the faithful had now dwindled from 200,000 to close to 35,000 – a decline of 85 per cent.

The second-largest Christian community in Syria before the war was in Homs, but when we visited the city, at a time of continuing insecurity, Church leaders said the numbers had slumped by an astonishing 95 per cent – 40,000 down to barely 2,000. Even in regions where the Syrian government had largely succeeded in the struggle against militants, the decline was still
very marked.

It is now almost two years since the Assad regime won its first battle against extremist groups, retaking the mountain-top shrine town of Maaloula, north-east of the capital, Damascus. In spite of the heightened government security there, the town’s Melkite priest, Fr Toufic Eid, told us that only a third of Christians had returned. He explained that potential homecomers were discouraged by an absence of jobs, the slow rebuilding of homes and a breakdown of trust in Muslim neighbours, who they said had collaborated with the extremists in their effort to take and hold the town.

While there are many regions that have seen a massive reduction in the numbers of Christians, there are others that have seen an upsurge – places of relative sanctuary which have taken in tens of thousands of displaced faithful.

Tartous, on the eastern Mediterranean coast, is one such example, where Maronite Archbishop Antoine Chbeir said numbers had grown from 150,000 to 500,000 – though by no means all of these are displaced Christians.

Other Christians have sought sanctuary in Damascus, some of whom we met. Those we spoke to had come from as far as Aleppo, the epicentre of the conflict. We met these families in the suburb of Jaramanah, itself the victim of sporadic bombs from opposition groups seeking to destabilise Assad’s power base in the Syrian capital. Such violence and instability explains why so many of the displaced in Damascus are seeking a swift exit from the country.

Looking at the situation for Syrian Christians as a whole, the exodus figures are likely to be higher even than those suggested by Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo. The Jesuit bishop said just before Easter that two-thirds of Syria’s Christians had left the country since the conflict began.

Before we left Syria, the Damascus-based Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch – leader of one of the largest Christian communities in Syria – movingly described the “mission” of Christians in Syria. He spoke of them as the successors of the first Apostles who arrived in the country soon after Pentecost Day in Jerusalem, and whose cause was brilliantly taken up by their one-time persecutor, St Paul.

But the sad reality is that the future of the Church of St Paul can only be guaranteed if there is a quick victory over genocidal extremists and a swift return of law and order.

John Pontifex is head of press and information for Aid to the Church in Need (UK).

This article first appeared in the April 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To download the entire issue for free with our new app, go here.