Syrian Christians face danger at Christmas

KINGSTON – The holidays are a time of hope, charity, and festive gatherings in Canada. And many Canadians will attend church services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day without concern for their safety.

But for Syria’s ancient Christian community, the traditional season of hope and light has become one of dread and fear. Merely attending church services on Christmas could put Syrian Christians at risk of being kidnapped by rebels, killed in a terrorist bomb attack or shot dead by religious extremists.

According to a 2013 report by Open Doors International, a Christian human rights group, 74% of the Syrian population is Sunni Muslim. However, the country “possesses significant sectarian diversity,” states the report, entitled Vulnerability Assessment of Syria’s Christians. For example, Alawite Muslims and Christians each make up about 10% of the population.

The ongoing civil war has been hard on all Syrians. However, Open Doors International contends that Christians “suffer disproportionately from the violence, insecurity and overall impunity in Syria.” And the non-governmental organization alleges that Islamist groups are deliberately targeting the Christian community.

For example, the Christian and Muslim residents of the town of Yabroud have, for the most part, coexisted peacefully for centuries. But it appears that militants are determined to destroy that placid relationship.

In October, two explosive devices were found in the Greek Catholic Cathedral of Constantine and Helen, one of the oldest churches in the Middle East. Later that same month, the ancient church was damaged when government forces shelled the town.

Last week, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay painted a grim picture of the increasingly desperate situation in Syria. She condemned the rebels for terrorizing civilians through the abductions of religious figures and others. Pillay also slammed the “enforced disappearances of individuals by Government forces in Syria.”

Earlier this month, rebels kidnapped 12 Greek Orthodox nuns and three workers from the Greek Orthodox Mar Taqla convent at the Christian village of Maaloula. The Christian village is located along a strategic road to Damascus.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a United Kingdom-based organization that advocates for religious freedom around the world, “thousands of Christians and many Muslims fled Maaloula when it was invaded on Sept. 5 by Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamist militia, including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabat al Nusra.”

The nuns, as well as three women who worked at the convent’s orphanage, are reportedly being held in the town of Yabroud, which is currently controlled by the rebels. No group has taken responsibility for the mass kidnapping, but it is widely believed that al Nusra is responsible.

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s Ambassador for Religious Freedom, has publicly condemned the abduction and has called for the nuns’ “liberation.”