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Syrian Christians targeted by outsiders, says bishop

Three men at mourned at a church in Damascus (Photo: CNS)

Christians in Syria are continuing to be targeted by outside fundamentalist groups who have joined the country’s long civil war, the head of the Syriac Catholic Church in Jerusalem has said.

Bishop Boutros Melki, Syriac Catholic patriarchal vicar, said Christians feared the situation in Syria will become like that in Iraq, where half the Christian population has fled since the American-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

In an interview with the American Catholic News Service, the bishop said the historic city of Maaloula, with its ancient churches and monasteries, became the site of fighting between rebel and government forces. Attacks against churches and Christian homes occurred and Christian icons and crosses were destroyed and defamed, he said.

“We can’t accuse anybody, but when we know about such actions we ask ourselves what does all this mean and why?” he said. “We always remember what happened in Iraq. Unfortunately, Iraq is still in a bloody nightmare.”

Several priests as well as bishops have been kidnapped over the past six months and have not been heard from since, he said. At least one priest has been confirmed killed. Christian civilians are also being targeted for kidnappings and shot by militias, he said.

Foreign “jihadists”, Bishop Melki said, are coming from different countries with the impression that the Christians in Syria are “kafirs”, or infidels. Christians are not immigrants in Syria but have been in the country since the beginning of Christianity, he said.

The bishop said countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and European nations who are “pushing” people to fight each other could easily lower the levels of bloodshed in the country by simply refusing to sell weapons to either side.

“Those who are fighting each other, with which arms are they doing that? Where did they buy them?” he asked.

“I can’t defend anybody, not the regime and not the opposition,” Bishop Melki added. “I am really just talking in a human way when I see all this suffering and destruction [and] I say why?

“Can we have anything good with these people? Unfortunately, the media targeted the Christians as pro-regime [of Syrian President Bashar Assad]. We are not for one or the other. We are looking at the reality … as in Iraq we are not for Saddam Hussein, or here Bashar Assad. We are for the human being,” the bishop continued.

“If we want to change and put in another regime would that it be a better one. We want to live with dignity with all our rights as citizens and not to be considered second class.”

Bishop Melki said there is a deep fear “that the outside groups will take control”.