(Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah)
NEW YORK – The World Evangelical Alliance called for the protection of Syria's minority Christian population ahead of the major Geneva II conference on Wednesday, which is set to discuss solutions to the ongoing Syrian crisis.
"The reality is that this is just part of the process. They are not going to get everything accomplished in these two days, so we need to measure our expectations," said Dr. Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary general of the WEA, in an interview with The Christian Post on Tuesday. "At minimum we are looking for a cessation in the armed conflict, that people will stop dying, that they can come to an agreement that they can stop the killings."
The conference, which is sponsored by the U.N. along with Russia and the U.S., is hoping to bring together for talks a delegation representing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and representatives of some of the opposition forces looking to topple his administration. The civil war in Syria, which has been going on since 2011, has killed over 100,000 people and displaced over 9.3 million, according to U.N. estimates.
Syria's government received intense international scrutiny and threats of military intervention after it was accused of committing a large-scale chemical attack in Damascus in August, which reportedly killed 1,429 Syrians, including 426 children, though Assad has denied that his forces were behind the attack.
Christians, who make up around 8 percent of the population, have also suffered heavily, with Islamic rebel groups destroying churches and sometimes entire towns, murdering dozens of followers of Christ.
"We are deeply concerned for the Christian community in Syria. Like all minority groups they need protection from the very real threats that have been made against them. In addition, it is imperative that as the future shape of Syria is being determined, Christians who have had a presence in the land for two thousand years be represented," Tunnicliffe added in a statement Tuesday.
Wanting to call special attention to the minorities, the WEA secretary general spoke before members of Congress in Washington last week about the crisis in Syria and the difficulties Christians there face.
"They are under great threat, and we are calling for protection for those minorities. Many pastors, many church leaders have been threatened with their lives, and we are very concerned about that," Tunnicliffe told CP.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has stated decisively that if things are to improve in the war-torn country, President Assad needs to be removed from power. Several Christian groups working in and around Syria have stated, however, that believers fear Islamic radicals taking over the country might make the situation even more dangerous.
Tunnicliffe, who has visited some of the Syrian refugee camps, said that regardless of who takes power in Syria, minorities, including Christians, need to be protected.
"As we know, the opposition party is fractured. There are radicals within it. We would call upon the moderates to make a place for Christians in the new Syria, whatever is created. I think sometimes people misinterpret opposition to those who are seeking to overthrow the Assad regime as support for that regime. Both are very difficult situations."
He added that the Syrian people need to determine what their future government will be and who will hold power, but the world community needs to empower the Syrians to be able to make those kinds of decisions.
Possible solutions for Syria continue to be very complicated, he noted, while expressing hopes that the Geneva peace talks will at the very least be able to improve access to humanitarian aid for Syrians.
"Our organizations need to be able to travel safely and deliver aid to the Syrian people who are hurting and struggling right now. Hopefully this will be accomplished this week in the talks," he continued.
The U.N. has called for $6.5 billion in aid for the Syrian crisis – its biggest ever appeal for a single issue. Tunnicliffe offered, however, that the distribution of that money needs to be carefully considered.
"We are calling on the U.S. government and other governments to provide additional funding to local NGOs. There is a disproportional amount of funding that has gone to international NGOs, which is very helpful in getting that aid, but it's really the local and national organizations on the ground that need additional funds."
He concluded that Syrian Christians need to be properly represented and have their concerns heard at the Geneva talks, and urged believers around the world to pray for them.
"I think for Christians, the top of our priority is that we should be praying," Tunnicliffe said, "praying that peace will come, and praying for our sisters and brothers who are in the land and are facing these very difficult circumstances."