Caught between the larger Sunni-Shi’a battles for supremacy in Syria, Christians are forced to contemplate an uncertain future as Western powers debate action against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
Many Christians support Assad out of fear that if he is overthrown and replaced by Islamists they will face greater persecution, especially from al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim rebel groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, who have attacked Christians.
Christian villagers in Wadi al-Nassara in western Syria, home to about 50,000 Christians, have formed popular defense committees with the blessing of the Syrian government.
These militias are armed and trained by the Syrian government to supplement the Syrian army and protect their own neighborhoods or villages from attacks by rebels. Many of these militias are comprised of Syrian minority groups such as Christians, Druze and Alawites.
While Assad may have links to Iran and Hizbullah, his secular government, led by the minority Alawites, has proved to be friendlier toward Christians than other regional elements, compounding the uncertainty surrounding Syrian Christians’ future.
In April, two Syrian bishops, Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yaziji, were kidnapped at gunpoint at a rebel checkpoint near Aleppo. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
In early July, a video posted on LiveLeak.com apparently showed Syrian Catholic priest Father Francois Murad being beheaded by the al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels, Jabhat al-Nusra, in front of a cheering crowd. While there are conflicting reports over whether Murad was the person depicted in the video, the Vatican has confirmed that Murad and two others were taken from a monastery in northern Syria and killed.
In late July, an al-Qaeda linked group abducted Italian Jesuit Priest Paolo Dall’Oglio, who has worked for years to restore Deir Mar Musa, an ancient Christian monastery located 80 kilometers north of Damascus, and make it a modern center for Muslim-Christian interfaith dialogue.
Christians comprise between five and ten percent of Syria’s estimated 22 million people, down from more than 20 percent a century ago.