Christians Consider Fleeing Syria Amid Fears of Intolerance

As the violent conflict between rebels and the Syrian government continues putting the lives of civilians at risk, many Christians are reportedly considering fleeing the country, once considered a safe haven for Christians in the Middle East.

Syrian Christians are faced with danger on two fronts, as remaining in the country means risking getting caught in the crossfire between government and rebel forces. At the same time, if the rebels prevail and the regime falls, an Islamic government could emerge, making life even more difficult for the Christian community, according to Issam Bishara, regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association's (CNEWA).

Consequently, Christians are not only fleeing ares of violence, like the city of Homs, but more and more are reportedly considering leaving the country all together, driven by fear grounded in "a deep concern based on the reality that where the Arab Spring has flourished, political life has become more fanatic and less tolerant of recognizing equal rights for Christians," Bishara revealed.

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"Even Tunisia, where the former regime was based on a complete secular approach and tradition for more than 50 years, turned into an Islamic-dominated government, and just yesterday, large demonstrations there were calling for the establishment of a full Islamic state," Bishara told the National Catholic Reporter.

Many Christians in Syria therefore feel they have little choice but to flee the country.

"Christian families started looking for a contingency plan consisting of finding a safer place for their families in case the uprising and the military events escalated all over Syria, with the same scenario as Homs," Bishara said, adding that the families caught in Homs who decided to remain are now in danger and "are living in fear and poverty. Most of them cannot go outside their dwellings because of sniper fire, and of course none of them have any kind of income; the only reason they stay in Homs is to preserve their properties and because they have no other place to go to."

"The majority of Christians have left the area, and for the small number who remain, it is a great challenge to go outdoors to get even bread or medication. Accordingly, these families are not practicing their faith for the time being for security and military reasons, but in other parts of the city and the rest of the country, people are practicing their faith as usual," the aid worker said.

Local clergy workers who left the country have been informing the Catholic organization of acts of pillaging or even official repossession of houses of some Christian families amid the turmoil. The embattled city also serves as a somber example for Christians across the country for another reason. Reports indicate that an al-Qaida-linked militant group has been targeting Christians in Homs. The Syrian Orthodox Church, which represents 60 percent of the Christians in Syria, has informed the media recently of "an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians" by members of the a militant Islamist outfit, Brigade Faruq.

Terrorism remains a concern, in addition to the ongoing violence related to the uprising, the CNEWA representative confirmed in the interview.

The Catholic organization also reported the deteriorating economic conditions for Christians across Syria, who live in need as they have lost their jobs. "Moreover, the situation of families who lost their homes and were forced to find refuge in other areas is even worse," Bishara warned.

Christians in Syria, who make up about 10 percent of the 2.5 million population, have been stranded between supporting the regime, which has traditionally guarded freedom of worship, and the potential animosity from the anti-regime, pro-democracy rebels looking to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Many Christian observers expressed fear that the fall of Assad might lead to the rise of an Islamist government that would show less tolerance toward non-Muslim minorities in this mostly Sunni Muslim country, similar to what happened in Egypt or Iraq, where as many as one million Christians were estimated to have fled since 2003 due to extremist violence and poor economic conditions as well as reported lack of government protection.

"Christians in Syria fear that the overthrow of Assad will result in direct persecution against the Christian minority and a mass exodus of Christians from the country, similar to what had happened in Iraq and is now occurring in Egypt," Aidan Clay of the International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group, told The Christian Post.

"Syria has long been a country where all religious groups have lived in relative peace. However, that will soon change with a rebel takeover of the government assisted by U.S. aid," Clay, the regional manager for the Middle East, added, referring to the fact that the United States was among the countries that vowed recently to support the rebels. Such support "may do nothing more than speed up the process of substituting one brutal dictatorship for another, perhaps more ruthless," according to Clay.

"Throughout the Middle East, we are seeing the Arab Spring uprisings replace long-standing rulers with Islamist movements that disregard the rights of non-Muslims and women," Clay told CP. "Attacks against Middle Eastern Christians have occurred on an unparalleled scale following the uprisings. Syria will be no different."

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