Displaced Syrian families, who fled violence after the Turkish offensive against Syria, sit in a bus on their way to camps in the Iraqi province of Dahuk Oct. 16, 2019. In an Oct. 17 plea, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese of the Military Services, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, urged countries choose “dialogue over confrontation” to resolve their differences. CNS photo/Ari Jalal, Reuters

Christians face new threat in Syria

  • October 26, 2019

For Christians in Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s invasion into Syria could be the tipping point to drive them out and hasten the end of Middle-East Christianity, fears Chaldean Catholic Bishop of Canada Bawai Soro.

“The fear, the lack of stability, is a violence that goes through the inner conscience of people,” he said. “Even if there are areas of stability, the heart and the mind and the soul are really bothered with what is going on. 

“You will see how many people will be leaving, or those who wanted to leave — they will make sure they will leave.”

Following an Oct. 9 attack by Turkey on northeast Syria, more than 160,000 people, mainly Kurds but also Christians and Yazidis, have fled, according to the relief agency of the United Nations. With many humanitarian organizations also running for cover, aid for those on the run has been limited.

The attacks came three days after a widely denounced decision by U. S. President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops, which had been aligned with Kurdish forces in the region against the Islamic State. The Kurds and their YPG (People’s Protection Unit) fighters had assured Christians they could safely remain in their towns and villages. 

But the sudden withdrawal of American troops left not just the Kurds but also Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic communities exposed.

Turkey intends to ethnically cleanse a 30-kilometre strip along Syria’s northern border and populate it with two million  Syrian Muslim refugees who have poured into Turkey since 2014. But Soro believes Turkish aggression is about more than refugee resettlement. 

“That strip that Turkey wants to make as a buffer zone, it is one of the most ancient strategic strips in the whole world,” he said. “That’s the crucial part of the silk road that ties Asia with Europe.”

The region is also rich with untapped oil and minerals, Soro said.

“What is more worrisome for the Christians is the plan to redo the ethnicity of that (Turkish buffer) zone,” CNEWA Canada national director Carl Hétu told The Catholic Register

“This is something that should not happen at all. The region doesn’t need it. The Christians don’t need it. The Kurds don’t need it. Actually, nobody needs another war in the Middle East.”

CNEWA has heard from its staff and partners on the ground that most of the fighting so far has been along the western part of the Syrian-Turkish border in a region settled by Kurdish, Sunni Muslims.

“A few Christians have been moved, have been on the move. We’re not sure how many, but not too many,” said Hétu.

The bulk of Christians in the buffer zone are settled in villages along the Syrian-Iraqi border, which Iraqi authorities have closed to Syrians fleeing the fighting. There’s been little fighting in that part of Turkey’s self-declared buffer zone. However, there’s concern for the 60,000-strong Christian community in Al Hasakah, about 50 kilometres south of the buffer zone.

“They all are worried, that’s for sure,” Hétu said.

The invasion and plan to ethnically cleanse the region is another nail in the coffin of Middle-Eastern Christianity, according to Syriac Orthodox Deacon Ammar Geeso. 

Geeso is a former refugee, now a general contractor in Toronto, who believes the immediate future and survival of Middle-East Christians lies in places like Canada and Europe. He has watched attempts to resettle Christians in Iraq and says pouring money into rebuilding churches and Christian villages surrounding Mosul is a waste of time.

“If these agencies spend money to build this area, build it for what?” he asked. “For ISIS? Or for the Muslims? If they build a school, they build it for them.”

Syriac Orthodox archpriest Fr. Matta Aboshi of St. Benham Church in Mississauga, Ont., is resigned to another exodus of Christians.

“Now it is dangerous, many people killed,” he said. “So if we can help the people get out of Syria and Iraq, that’s a miracle for them.”

But another airlift of Syrian refugees seems unlikely, said the director of the Archdiocese of Toronto’s refugee office. 

“At this point there’s no indication that Immigration Canada would change its landings targets,” said Deacon Rudy Ovcjak.

His office has used its allotment of refugee sponsorships for 2019, but has applied for 30 more from a reserve held back in case of emergency.

Syrians on the run from the Turkish invasion can’t be sponsored until they cross an international border and are thus designated as a refugee. 

“The problem is that there’s a lot of Syrian people in Syria, but they don’t have enough money to leave for Lebanon or to leave Syria,” said Bishop Antoine Nassif, the Apostolic Exarch for Syriac Catholics in Canada. “There’s no way for the Canadian government to bring them while they still live in Syria,” 

He hopes Christians can hang on in Syria, but understands when they say they’ve had enough.

“You need peace in order to see the future,” said Nassif. “We always encourage our people to stay in their countries. We are attached to our traditions, our countries, our life there. But we cannot say no to the people who want to leave.”

At the start of this century, there were about 2.5 million  Christians in Syria and Iraq. Estimates today put that number at less than 500,000. 

Aid to the Church in Need Canada will continue to raise money to help Middle-East Christians re-establish their churches and villages in the region, said ACN Toronto office representative Felipe Bezerra.

“Christianity is not going to disappear from the Middle East and everything we can do we will do to assure that,” Bezerra said. “Yes, the situation is a lot worse than it was before and for 10 years it’s been getting worse and worse — for Christians all over the world and not just for them. 

“But it’s our faith. It’s who we are. … If they want to stay, we’re helping them to stay.”

Geeso doesn’t think there’s any point in staying for the sake of the real estate. For him, the survival of his faith, his tradition and his culture depends entirely on saving people, not villages.

“Do you focus on the person or the history?” he asks. “Let’s say if in Iraq I say I will never leave here and they kill me. You’ve lost the history. If they killed me, you will get nothing.”

He points to Syriac Christians who are buying up empty churches in Ontario and filling them with people who speak a version of the language Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago.

“God doesn’t focus about geography, where you are. Focus about heart. When we come here, we are doing all these things in Canada as we would do it back home,” he said. “For the Christianity, we keep it in my heart and in my mind.”

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