AMMAN – As the fighting raged on in northeast Syria in early October, fighters from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) were given an unusual task: cleaning a church.
As soldiers scrubbed pews and plastered whitewashed walls in the small Armenian church of Tal Abyad in Raqqa province, they were broadcast on social media as proof of the SNA’s commitment to protecting the minority Christian community of northeast Syria.
Soon after, Turkish media published videos of the church being reopened to worshippers and SNA soldiers returning artifacts previously looted by the SNA. The videos seemed to be in response to claims by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that SNA fighters were abusing Christians and even conducting forced conversions.
The transformation of the small chapel into a media battleground between the SNA and SDF was indicative of the greater struggle between the two as they jockeyed for the role of Syrian Christians’ protector.
However, being at the center of this public relations campaign has left Christians feeling as if they are being “exploited in an ugly way,” the director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights, Jameel Diarbakerli, told Syria Direct. He commented that it was the “PKK groups” which utilize Christians the most for their soft power diplomacy, referring to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party.
Immediately following the Turkish offensive, there were two violent attacks carried out against Christians in the SDF territory. The priest of an Armenian Catholic church in Qamishli, Ibrahim Hanna Bedoyan, known locally as “Father Hovsep,” and his son were assassinated in Deir e-Zor while on a visit to supervise the restoration of a local church on November 11, 2019.
On the same day as Father Hovsep’s assassination, there were two car bombings in the city of Qamishli, the de-facto capital of the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AA). The bombings targeted churches, shops and hotels owned by local Syriac, Chaldean and Armenian Christians, according to the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the AA’s main political party.
The PYD demanded that the international community, and in particular the US and the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh, “handle their responsibility towards the constituent peoples of northeast Syria who defeated terrorists on behalf of the rest of the world,” and that they “find a way to protect these people.”
Despite the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) claiming responsibility for the assassination, questions were raised due to the fact that it occurred in “SDF-controlled territory,” especially since the SDF has recently “allied and cooperated with the Assad regime,” the vice president of Syrian Christians for Peace, Dr. Samira Moubayed said.
“In addition to ISIS overcoming all of the security checkpoints, there were a number of unconvincing facts [surrounding Father Hovsep assassination],” Dr. Moubayed told Syria Direct. “The event reminded us of what the Assad regime did for so many decades before—from bombings to suicide attacks in urban areas—to create chaos and fear of terrorists.”
Christians during the “Syrian revolution”
In the early years of the Syrian revolution, Damascus attempted to arm the Syrian Christian community. It encouraged them to join the ranks of the government intelligence and security services and to form militias to defend from any future rebel assaults. However, the Christian community quickly rejected the entreaties of the government.
Their refusal to arm themselves was “due to their place within [Syria] and the Christian culture that leads them to eschew violence and fighting,” Dr. Moubayed said. In many cases, “Christians preferred to send their children abroad than to sacrifice them on the frontlines,” she added.
Still, despite their general lack of engagement in the civil war, Christians were not spared from its violence. According to multiple sources, Christians became the target of almost every party during the Syrian civil war.
“There is an agreement between the extremist elements and the regime on one side, and the regime and the Iranian militias on the other, both aiming to displace Christians and change the culture [of Syria],” Dr. Moubayed said.
In Diarbakerli’s view, Christians in Syria have become a “scapegoat” for all parties in the civil war. “When the regime wants to hurt the opposition, they target the Christians. The opposition, Kurds, Turks, and Russians all do the same thing,” he said.
In a September report on violations committed against Christians in Syria, the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) documented “124 incidents of assaults against Christian worship sites by the main parties in Syria between March 2011 and September 2019.” According to the same report, 75 of those attacks were carried out by the regime, 10 by ISIS, 33 by armed opposition groups and two incidents by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In addition, Christians living in government-controlled areas have been subject to arbitrary arrests. According to the director of SNHR, Fadel Abdulghani, there have been around 450 arrests of Christians in government-controlled areas since 2014, 28 of which are women. Of those arrested, 165 have been released.
Christians also suffered immensely in the areas where ISIS took control. The town of Qaryatayn in Homs province represented a small microcosm of Syria’s demographics as, similar to pre-war Syria, 10 percent of its population was Christian. ISIS took control of Qaryatayn twice–first in August 2015–causing many Christians to flee and radically changing the social fabric of the small desert town.
Christians were also charged “jizya”—a tax on non-Muslim subjects living in an Islamic state—by ISIS in areas the group controlled in northeast Syria.
HTS, in addition to targeting two worship sites, according to the SNHR report, has displaced massive amounts of Christians from the areas the group controls in northwest Syria. The extremist group has also expropriated possessions and properties belonging to Christian residents who fled, according to several civilian sources from Idlib.
Though Christians and all other religious minorities are guaranteed freedom of worship under the 2014 constitution adopted by the AA, the Kurdish-led political authority has been accused of violating Christians’ rights in northeast Syria on several occasions. In August 2018, the AA closed down about a dozen private Christian schools in northeast Syria due to their non-conformance with AA-approved curricula.
The abuses against the sizable Christian population in northeast Syria—made up of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs—occurred even though it enjoys formal protection under the AA’s constitution, as it does under the Assad regime.
“The rights of Christians are being violated daily in Kurdish regions,” Diarbakerli said. “Their properties are being expropriated, Chauvinist policies are being imposed on them and their schools are being ‘Kurdified’,” he said.
Constant displacement of Christians
Samir, a Christian from the city of Hasakah in northeast Syria read in the bible that “we will be sheep among wolves,” he told Syria Direct. “Today we’re seeing this with our own eyes.”
Samir, unlike the other Christians that spoke to Syria Direct for this report, is loyal to Damascus. He appreciates the regime’s sympathy for Christians, as in his view, they are targeted in an attempt “to uproot them” from their communities and Syria.
Dr. Moubayed agreed that there is a “systematic plan to expel [Christians] from their ancestral land.” Further, in her view, “all of the attempts and claims to protect Christians in the Middle East, sometimes by foreign states, have led to nothing.”
Fear of displacement is prevalent among Christian communities in Syria, especially after attacks targeting them. After the bombings in Qamishli and the assassination of Father Hovsep, “a feeling of anxiety and instability has returned to Christian communities in northeast Syria,” a Christian from the city of Qamishli told Syria Direct under the condition of anonymity.
“There are Christians that are thinking of fleeing and are just waiting for their chance. There are [also] Christians who weren’t thinking of fleeing before, but with the succession of incidents against them, they have begun to think about it,” a Christian source from Qamishli said.
“Displacement is still very much continuing,” Diarbakerli said. “I regret saying this, but there is not even a glimmer of hope for the foreseeable future and in light of the lack of security, the only option left is to flee.”
“Syrian Christians are being assassinated, displaced and their property is being stolen,” he said. “There is no party that is treating them well.”
The number of Christians in Syria hit a low in 2018, at three percent of the total population, in contrast to the pre-war population, which sat at 10% of Syria’s population, according to numbers provided to Syria Direct by the Paris-based organization, “Syrian Christians for Human Rights.”
In 2016, there were 800,000 Christians in Syria; in 2018 that number dropped to 300,000, according to the organizations.
Christians as a propaganda tool
The AA’s relationship with Syrian Christians seems to make up a key part of the political body’s diplomacy, as it styles itself as the only actor in the region who can protect the religious minority. To that end, representatives from the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the SDF, met with the Family Research Council (FRC) and made several media appearances on conservative Christian news channels in 2019.
In an interview with Christian Broadcast News (CBN) in February, Bassam Ishak, the co-chair of the SDC, said that “the existence of Christians hangs in the balance given surrounding threats.” He added that the AA was a “golden opportunity” to guarantee religious freedom in the Middle East.
He further compared the AA to “Isaiah’s Holy Highway” which the Bible predicted would run through Syria and would constitute a “crescent of love, peace and prosperity.”
In July, the Syriac Military Council (SMC), an AA-affiliated military body, “urged the Christians in the US to ask the US Army … in northeast Syria” to prevent the Turkish army and “jihadists” from attacking the area, and asked the US if it would protect the “vulnerable Christians” of the area by preventing a Turkish attack.
At least in the US, the AA’s message seems to have been well-received, as Pat Robertson, a prominent Christian televangelist, warned that Trump would “lose his mandate of heaven” if he proceeded with his decision to pull US forces out of northeast Syria in October. He added that Trump is allowing “the Christians and the Kurds to be massacred by the Turks.”
In stark contrast to the AA’s message, the Armenian Patriarch in Turkey announced his support for “Operation Peace Spring” in pro-Turkish media on October 9, further deepening the involvement of the religious minority in what is largely a political struggle between the AA and Turkey.
In an article on October 12, Turkish media also published several statements in support of “Operation Peace Spring” from Christian advocacy groups, including the Netherlands-based World Council of Arameans and the Istanbul Syriac Ancient Foundation. The article also alleged that “Syrian Christians have long been critical of the oppressive practices of the YPG [the military wing of YPD].”
Despite his opposition to “Operation Peace Spring,” the young man from Qamishli said that “the SDF exploits the Christian issue by saying that they are the sole guarantor for minorities.” He also noted that there has been a “huge exaggeration” of their role as a protector of minorities recently.
Speaking about the “Turkish aggression,” Diarbakerli said that “any foreign intervention or military action against another state is aggression.” Still, he denounced the AA’s propaganda which seeks to portray the “Operation Peace Spring” as “only being against Christians,” as if Turkey “wanted nothing else but to kill Christians.”
In addition to using Christians as a propaganda “tool,” Dr. Moubayed accused the AA of “attempting to falsify the [demographic] statistics of the region to make one group appear bigger than the other.”
She added that the “secular” ideology adopted by the AA is not entirely compatible with the more religious lifestyles of many in the area, including Syrian Christians.
Damascus engages in much of the same activities, claiming to protect Christians when it is just “using them for cover,” according to Dr. Moubayed.
All sides use Syrian Christians as a way of “provoking the West emotionally, because the West doesn’t care about [Syria],” though it uses Christians for political ends in the Middle East, Diarbakerli said.