WASHINGTON — Church leaders warned that more blood, martyrs and the end of the Church in Syria is the price Syria will pay if the U.S. decides to go ahead with plans to arm the rebel forces.
Syria’s two-year civil war between forces allied with ruling President Bashar al-Assad and the rebel opposition has devolved into a sectarian Shia-Sunni conflict with Christians and other minorities caught in the crossfire.
"We’re seeing what looks like an extermination of Christianity," Bishop Nicholas Samra, head of the Melkite Catholic Church in the United States, told the Register. "It’s not a healthy situation to help either side militarily at this point."
Bishop Samra said that Syria’s five Melkite bishops delivered a "bleak report" about the Church in Syria to him and other Melkite bishops gathered at their June annual meeting with Patriarch Gregory III Laham in Lebanon. He said Christians have lost an enormous amount of lives, and many are victims of kidnapping, mainly due to Islamist rebels.
"Our patriarch and all of our bishops are just calling for an end to all of the fighting and to create peace there," Bishop Samra said. "We want to see what can be done by working relationships and by sitting down and talking, rather than shooting."
After 27 months of bloodshed, the United Nations estimates that more than 90,000 perished in the bloody conflict as of April 2013, at a rate of 5,000 killings per month. CNN reports that U.N. sources say more than 30% of the country’s 22 million people have fled their homes: More than 1.5 million refugees have fled the country, while more than 4 million people are displaced in Syria itself.
Melkite Father Elias Rafaj, serving in the Houston area, told the Register that the Syrian priests and friends he has been in contact with tell him that the rebel forces are dominated by Sunni Islamists who have targeted other Muslim minorities, but particularly Christians.
"The audacity of rebels is that they are no longer fearing repercussions from the West," Father Rafaj said.
The atrocities in the war took on a new face with the death of Franciscan Father François Murad on June 23 by Sunni rebels associated with the al Qaeda-supported al-Nusra Front. The Vatican’s Fides News Agency reported receiving confirmation of the priest’s death from the office of the Custos of the Holy Land.
"The rebel forces have become pretty much lawless, driven by fundamentalism," Father Rafaj said. "They look at Christians as being kuffar, the infidel that must be killed or eradicated."
He said two bishops, one Syrian Orthodox and the other Greek Orthodox, were kidnapped by rebel forces while on a mission to negotiate the ransom of kidnapped victims, and they are now feared dead.
Multiple news reports have indicated that Christians have taken security into their own hands in various areas. Syriac Christians and Kurds have established security perimeters to keep out fighters and the pursuing Syrian Army from their areas, while Christians in Aleppo and Damascus have also taken up arms to defend their own neighborhoods.
Father Rafaj said that Christians have been heeding the call of Patriarch Gregory and their bishops to remain neutral in the conflict. He said that, while the conflict began as a struggle for more democratic rights, the rebel fighters for the most part have become "lawless, driven by fundamentalism." He said this has forced Christians in the cities to take up arms to protect their own neighborhoods, instead of relying solely upon government troops to protect them.
"There have been a number of massacres of Christians and Alawites in small unprotected villages," Father Rafaj explained. "As rebels came through, they turned villages into a bloodbath to demonstrate their authority."
But Father Rafaj said the Christians for the most part have not formed their own militia, as happened in Lebanon’s bloody civil war.
"If a militia or brigade of Christians does exist, it is an anomaly," he said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly requested that the Obama administration give neither financial nor military assistance to either side.
"Syria urgently needs a political solution that ends the fighting and creates a future for all Syrians," Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, wrote in an April letter to White House national security adviser Tom Donilon.
Stephen Colecchi, director of the bishops’ Office of International Justice and Peace, said the bishops wanted the U.S. to follow the call of Pope Francis and put its weight behind a ceasefire and providing humanitarian assistance to the country.
"If you pour more arms into the conflict, you make the conflict more lethal, more innocent civilians die and more innocent civilians are displaced from their homes," he said.
Colecchi said that an arms embargo on all sides in the conflict might be a creative way to force both sides to the negotiating table.
However, President Barack Obama moved ahead in June with plans to give military support to the Free Syrian Army, led by rebel Gen. Salim Idris. The move is meant to have the CIA bolster "moderate" rebel fighters with small arms and weapons training and save the rebellion from losing more ground to Assad’s government forces, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The Assad government, supported by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, has received military, political and economic assistance from China and Russia. The rebels, loosely assembled under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, have been supported by Qatar and Saudi Arabia, as well as an influx of foreign fighters, including al Qaeda, committed to waging a religious war in Syria.
The Financial Times reports that both the United Kingdom and France are putting pressure on the European Union to end its arms embargo to Syria, so they can start arming the rebels directly.
The U.S. economic sanctions, ranging from oil imports to financial transactions, however, have hit the Syrian people, leading to inflation of the currency. However, the Financial Times reports the Assad government has found China, Russia and Iran willing to extend credit, import oil and foodstuffs, as well as offset half a billion dollars a month of oil revenue lost by the U.S. embargo.
Bishop Nicholas said the economic impact of the sanctions has hit the Syrian people hard. A dozen loaves of pita bread once cost 50 cents, but now one loaf costs $3.50.
"They are hurting minority groups more than anyone else," he said.
The war has stretched the resources of the Church in Syria thin. Father Rafaj said the priests he knows have sent their families into Lebanon and Jordan, as they stay with their remaining flocks in Syria. Bishop Nicholas explained that the patriarchate is directly subsidizing the salaries of 13-14 priests who no longer have any income from their churches or dioceses.
Additionally, he said many people have been coming to the churches in need of food, shelter and medicine.
"Christian or Muslim, we’re not showing partiality out there," he said. "Whenever someone comes to our door and is hungry, we’re going to give them food, medicines and whatever else there may be."
Various Catholic humanitarian and charitable agencies through the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Melkite Catholic Church are engaged in providing relief to the victims of the crisis. Colecchi told the Register that Catholic Relief Services is in the region, aiding refugees.
Colecchi said that the nations pouring in military arms to Syria have only deepened divisions on both sides in a conflict that began with Syrians of all groups coming together to demand greater freedoms.
"The international community needs to take steps that will de-escalate the conflict," Colecchi said. "They need to enable the parties within Syria to create an inclusive future, where the Alawites and the Christians will not be marginalized and where the Sunni will have a genuine voice."
Peter Jesserer Smith writes from Rochester, New York.