Syria’s Suffering Continues Unabated while Minorities are Targeted
ACN News: Friday, 11th April 2014 – UK/INTERNATIONAL
With pictures of Lord Alton of Liverpool at the Aid to the Church in Need Lenten vigil service for the Suffering Church in Syria, at the Immaculate Conception Church, Farm Street, London (© Weenson Oo/picture-u.net)
Will anyone stand up for persecuted Christians?
Peer accuses West of ‘indifference’
By John Pontifex
CHRISTIANS in the Middle East and elsewhere are suffering “systematic killing and outright persecution”, according to a leading Catholic human rights campaigner, and yet the West’s response is to ignore it “without barely a murmur of protest”.
Highlighting worsening killing and kidnapping of Christians and arson attacks on their churches and homes in parts of Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, Lord David Alton of Liverpool said the West’s “indifference” was compounding the crisis.
Lord Alton called on politicians including policy makers, intelligence and other security organisations, ethnic minorities, Church leaders and faith groups in general to take action to tackle persecution of religious communities, especially Christians who, he said, suffer the most.
And he went on to warn of disaster for the West itself if it fails to recognise the scale of the threat posed by violent and intolerant groups who, he said, had an increasingly global reach.
He said: “I want to highlight the systematic killing and outright persecution of Christians which takes place without hardly a murmur of protest – and challenge the mistaken belief that somehow this has little or nothing to do with us.
“Unless we lay bare the ideology which lies behind radical Islamist thinking and challenge the conspiracy of silence which surrounds the question of religious persecution, we will sleep walk into a tragedy which has implications far beyond the ancient Biblical lands…”
Lord Alton, a Crossbencher, made his comments earlier this week in an address given during a Lenten vigil service for persecuted Syrian Christians held in support of Catholic charity Aid at to the Church in Need and which took place at the Immaculate Conception Church of the Jesuits, Farm Street, in London’s Mayfair.
The service began with a procession led by clergy holding images of two Jesuits in Syria, Father Paulo Dall’Oglio, missing since last July, and Father Frans van der Lugt, shot dead on Monday (7th April) in the Old City of Homs.
Lord Alton’s speech, on Tuesday (8th April), came a day before Prime Minister David Cameron highlighted the persecution of Christians during an Easter Reception for Christians at 10 Downing Street, London.
During the reception, attended by leaders of Christian organisations, including Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director, ACN (UK), Mr Cameron said: “It is the case that Christians are now the most persecuted religion around the world.
“We should stand up against persecution of Christians and other faith groups wherever and whenever we can.”
The Prime Minister’s comments come amid concerns that governments around the world are not doing enough to tackle the causes of religious persecution.
During his Farm Street speech, Lord Alton reserved his strongest criticisms for fellow Parliamentarians.
Lord Alton, vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Working Group for International Religious Freedom or Belief, said: “Hundreds of parliamentary hours can be spent asserting the rights of foxes or on discussing rights associated with our life-styles but when it comes to the killing of children, or the torching of their homes and places of worship, or the destruction of centuries-old culture, our political classes have taken Trappist vows.
“This stems from a misplaced belief that their silence about radical Islamist groups represents ‘tolerance’. In reality, it stems from fear and indifference.”
Lord Alton highlighted the threat of Islamism for Christian communities, many of them with roots dating back millennia.
He said: “While we [in the West] overlook and fail to understand the religious dimension to these terrible atrocities – and the imperative of harnessing thoughtful and moderate religious leaders from all traditions – we fail to end the persecution and the unspeakable violence.
“We in the West, who enjoy so many freedoms and liberties…, ignore the systematic violent ideology of an Islamist ‘Final Solution’ directed at Christian minorities.”
And he called on Muslims in the West to speak out against persecution.
He said: “Muslims, who have often settled in our democracies, need to be much braver in breaking the conspiracy of silence and in identifying with those who suffer – among whom are many Muslim victims of visceral hatred by persecution for being the wrong kind of Muslims.”
Lord Alton was the keynote speaker at the service which was led by Father Dominic Robinson SJ, and included music by the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory School, directed by Charles Cole.
Other speakers included Louise Zanre, director, Jesuit Refugee Service UK, and Patricia Hatton and John Pontifex, both from ACN.
The event raised more than £3,300 for ACN’s work for Syria, which includes emergency and pastoral support for refugees and displaced people.
• To read Lord Alton’s talk in full as well as view images of the ACN vigil service for Syria at the Immaculate Conception Church, Farm Street, London, visit www.acnuk.org/lentenvigil
Speech in the House of Lords on Thursday February 27th 2014:
Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB):
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, for tabling this Motion for debate today and for the tone that she set in her opening remarks. I refer the House to my non-financial interests as honorary president of UK Copts, a board member of the Aid to the Church in Need charity and a patron of various human rights groups that work in the region.
Earlier in our debate, my noble friend Lord Wright of Richmond made an important and authoritative speech. I entirely agreed with his remarks about Syria and later in my remarks I will concentrate on what is happening there today. As he spoke, I reflected that I first met him in 1980 when he was our distinguished ambassador in Syria. With the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I arrived in Damascus on the very day when the war broke out between Iran and Iraq—a war that claimed some million lives. Perhaps in the context of what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, has just said to the House, we should remember that.
During that visit, we met with Ḥafez al-Assad, Yasser Arafat, King Hussein and Anwar Sadat.
In our subsequent report, we advocated a two-state approach as the only one likely to achieve sustainable peace between Israel and its neighbours.
Our visit was three months after the Muslim Brotherhood had made an assassination attempt on Ḥafez al-Assad, and his response was then to align Syria with Iran. King Hussein declared Jordan’s support for Iraq. One week after we met Assad, he was in Moscow signing a mutual friendship treaty. Depressingly, as my noble and gallant friend Lord Stirrup indicated, the lines in today’s conflict are not newly drawn.
In 1980, I wrote about the repressive nature of the region’s regimes—repressive then and repressive now. Iran’s human rights record remains appalling. Saudi Arabia, referred to in this debate as our strategic ally in the region, also commits egregious violations of human rights and remains one of the deadliest exporters of global terror. Back in 1980, Syria was expelling journalists and massacring dissidents. Surely the failure to see reform, change and sustainable solutions has had these disastrous consequences, nowhere more so than in Syria.
The failure to find solutions now includes 130,000 dead with millions more driven from their homes. Nine million are said to be displaced and 3 million have fled to neighbouring countries. One hundred and fifty thousand families are deprived of their father, 2 million dwellings are destroyed, 2 million families are without shelter and 2 million students without schools. The economy is in ruins, the currency is devalued by 300% and there is growing violence, anguish, division and bitterness every day.
Sarin gas has been used against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. Barrel bombs have rained down on Aleppo.
Citizens have been under siege in Homs and elsewhere, being starved to death.
Just over a week ago the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, pointed to what he called “the unspeakable suffering” of the country’s children, with 10,000 children now dead in Syria.
The United Nations report published last week details arbitrary detention, ill treatment, torture and horrific abuses of children by both sides including beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons, sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape, mock executions, cigarette burns, sleep deprivation and solitary confinement. The report says that the opposition forces too have increasingly “engaged in such acts.”
The “Afghanisation” of Syria, with vast tracts falling under the control of dangerous jihadist groups, would hardly represent progress. We need to hear much more from the Government, and with much more clarity, of assessments of each of these various factions which are largely at war with one another.
Describing them as the opposition conjures up images of a coherent and united group akin to opposition groups in parliamentary democracies. We should be very wary of using such descriptions.
Take ISIS. It is said that al-Qaeda has cut its links to one of its most deadly affiliates, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. There are also unverified reports, as we have heard, of a possible military confrontation between Hezbollah and ISIS. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what assessment she has made of the continuing use of ISIS suicide bombers, the territory it controls in north-eastern Iraq and its use of radicalised recruits, especially from the United Kingdom? I refer to recruits such as Anil Khalil Raoufi, a British Afghan who was studying engineering at the University of Liverpool and was recently killed in fighting between rebel groups. It is not just United Kingdom students—this week I sent the Minister a report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict which talks about the radicalisation of young Indonesian men who have gone to Syria via Turkey. Their director Sidney Jones says:
“Jihadi humanitarian assistance teams now appear to be facilitating the entry of fighters as well”.
It is not just that their presence in Syria fuels fundamentalism—it is that they are being radicalised in the process, posing dangers to the countries to which they return. The problem is exacerbated by the flow of arms into Syria.
In appealing to hatred, many jihadists cite a seventh-century directive which requires Christians to convert to Islam and pay tribute to Muslim rulers or leave. It is being increasingly enforced by extreme Islamist groups, so there is a religious dimension to this conflict. Here perhaps I would disagree on the margin with the remarks made by the right reverend Prelate, the bishop of Wakefield who said: “No, this is not a religious but a political conflict,”
What, also of the 60,000 fighters of the Islamic Front? Do the Government believe that the Front is capable of producing a secular or plural Syria in which minorities such as those to which I have just referred are respected? Do they have the capacity to be part of a transitional body capable of restoring trust, an almost impossible task in the aftermath of such horror? It was the late King Hussein who offered the wise advice to pray for God’s protection against,
“those who believe that they are the sole possessors of truth.”
These sole possessors of truth represent the biggest stumbling block in finding a peaceful way forward out of this confessional morass and they also represent the biggest danger to Alawites, Druze and Christians, and the rights of women.
Almost 1,500 years ago a wandering monk called John Moschos described the eastern Mediterranean as a flowering meadow of Christianity. That meadow is today a battlefield. Before the war the Christians of Syria accounted for between 4.5% and 10% of the population.
What will it be after the war? Forty-seven churches have been closed; two priests and a nun have been murdered; two bishops, three priests and 12 nuns have been abducted. I have raised these cases with the Minister and gave her notice that I would raise them again today. A new video of the nuns has just appeared with their traditional cross removed from their habit.
Do we have any news of their whereabouts and when they may be released by their jihadist captors? What news also, about the Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, kidnapped in July 2013 after entering rebel-held territory? Opposition sources from Raqqah said that Paolo Dall’Oglio had been executed by extremist groups. Do we have any news about that?
I have been looking at first-hand accounts which Aid to the Church in Need has received from Syrian Christians. Typical is this note from Basman Kassouha, a refugee now in the Bekaa Valley area of Lebanon. He says that the militias,
“stormed my house, giving me one hour to evacuate or else they will kill me … I’m heartbroken. I’ve lost everything”.
The Maronite Bishop Elias Sleman of Laodicea says Christians have been specifically targeted in a number of places. I shall quote him because I hope, as we collect evidence of these sorts of events, none of this will ever be lost to history. He says:
“There are many events that show that Christians are targeted, such as those of Maaloula, Sadad, Hafar, Deir Atiyeh, Carah, Nabk, Kseir, Rablé, Dmaineh, Michtayeh, Hassaniyeh, Knaïeh, and some villages of the Valley of Christians, Yabroud, Aafrd, the Jazirah region such as Hassaké, Ras El-Ain Kamechleh, and many other areas. Christians are increasingly targeted in horrible and unspeakable massacres”.
The mostly Christian town of Saidnaya has experienced repeated attacks by extremists. The fourth attack on the city occurred on 19 January.
The ancient site of the Convent of Our Lady on Mount Qalamoun has been frequently targeted by mortars.
In Homs, a Dutch priest, Father Van der Lugt, trapped in the old city, described how residents cut off for more than a year developed chronic mental health problems following the breakdown of social order.
He says, “Our city has become a lawless jungle”. I remind the noble Baroness of the situation in Sadad, where there was a terrible massacre that some have described as potential genocide. What news of the situation there?
While the quest for peace continues, perhaps the Minister will share with us what we are doing to provide direct help to these beleaguered minorities, what we are doing to stop the flow of arms into Syria, what progress has been made on the removal of the 700 tonnes of priority 1 chemicals, and what happens—as the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked—if the deadline for removal of chemical weapons is passed. Even an agreement suspending the flow of arms and foreign militant activists would be a success, because the ceasing of fighting is the precondition for all forms of reconciliation.
Let me conclude by pressing for a response to the question I raised on Monday with the Minister’s noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, who is sitting on the Front Bench. I asked whether we are meticulously collecting information of atrocities, and whether in the Security Council we will be asking for a referral those responsible for prosecution by the International Criminal Court. If the danger of any other country raising a veto against us were to be used as a reason for not doing that, it would question the point of our membership of the Security Council and bring great dishonour on this country.
Some additional points….
While in Damascus in 1980, I also met Yasser Arafat, who warned that disunity among Arab nations undermined progress and prevented any settlement of the Palestinian question. At the time I wrote that if the international community did not accelerate and deepen its efforts to find just solutions then there could be no peace and “the West will have to accept the consequences.”
The consequence of our signal failure to find durable solutions is that over thirty years later we are mired in one of the most brutal wars of this young century, which, for nearly three years, has led to ferocious carnage and savagery in Syria.
Take the atrocities in Sadad, which I have raised with the Government.
A total of 45 Christians were killed and 1,500 families were held hostage in Sadad, a largely Syrian Orthodox town, which was stormed by the Al-Nusra Front and an organisation called the Grandsons of the Prophet on 21st October 2013.
It was taken by government forces a week later.
Among those killed by rebels were two teenage boys, their mother and three of their grandparents. The bodies of university student Ranim, 18, and her 16-year-old brother, Fadi were discovered at the bottom of a well, close to their home.
Also brought to the surface were the remains of the youngsters’ mother, Njala, 45, and their grandparents: Mariam, a 90-year-old widow, as well as Matanios El Sheikh, 85, and his wife, Habsah, 75. Church sources say 30 bodies were also found in two separate mass graves.
At the end of last year Damascus-based Melkite Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch remarked: “How can somebody do such inhumane and bestial things to an elderly couple and their family?”
The Patriarch explained that thousands fled Sadad and initially were too afraid to return in case of further atrocities. Reports from the town described how vulnerable people unable to escape—including the elderly, disabled, women and children—were subjected to torture and some were strangled to death. Churches have been damaged and desecrated, while schools, and government and municipal buildings have also been destroyed.
The situation of the ancient Christian minority – which predates the coming of Islam to the region – is graphically illustrated by the story of Mariam, who is 67 years old. She is a widow, from Aleppo. She has three married daughters. She was living in a very dangerous area of the town and her house was destroyed. She lived with relatives in Syria for a while but decided to leave for Lebanon with her two daughters and their families because she was afraid that her family would be in danger. They arrived with nothing, only the clothes on their backs.
One of the girls found a part-time job and supports the family with its meagre income. All of them now live a single room. The oldest daughter also joined them from Syria, bringing her husband and four children.
Mariam is now chronically ill.
Mariam’s story is not unusual. Many refugees in the Bekaa region have faced horrendous conditions this winter, left with little to keep them warm and in some cases ten family members are living in one room with one shared bathroom. Medical supplies and access to hospital are severely limited and children, many of them traumatised, are being left without education.
Patriarch Gregorios III, the head of the Melkite Church, based in Damascus, has continually called for peace in the country, an end to armed conflict and substantial peace talks. Ahead of the recent Geneva II meeting he said:
“We beg [God] to inspire the countries and their representatives who are about to meet with the wherewithal for peace, security and a better future for Syrians.”
Patriarch Gregorios also stressed the need for unity among the international community in calling for peace and a halt to the influx of weapons to armed groups in Syria:
“The [international community’s] efforts should be concentrated on obtaining a peace that is really Syrian, for that would be true peace and the best and most suitable for all parties to the conflict and for all Syria.”
Today no group in Syria seems to control common criminal violence which is based on sectarian hatred; and no group seems in a position to deliver peace.
Diplomatic failure is attributable to intransigence and cynicism on the part of the Geneva participants but it also illustrates how ineffective the West has been with its own allies in the region and with the Syrian opposition which is partly a creature of the West’s invention.
In this intricate situation, there is one absolute priority: the civilian population of Syria.
Also see: The Daily Telegraph: Militant Islamist group In Syria Orders Christians To Pay Tax For Their Protection
Today in Raqqa and tomorrow in Rome
Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent
6:48PM GMT 27 Feb 2014
A militant Islamist group has demanded Christians living in the north-east of Syria pay it a tax in return for protection as it seeks to build a traditional “Caliphate” in areas it controls.
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) published the terms under which minorities could live under its rule in a statement on the internet.
“Christians are obligated to pay Jizya tax on every adult male to the value of four golden dinars for the wealthy, half of that for middle-income citizens and half of that for the poor,” their decree said. “They must not hide their status, and can pay in two instalments per year.” Four dinars would amount to just over half an ounce of gold, worth £435 at current prices.
In return, Christians will not be harmed and will be allowed to worship privately, maintain their own clergy without interference and keep their own cemeteries, it added. They are implicitly allowed to continue drinking alcohol and eating pork, but may not do so publicly or trade them with Muslims. Nor may they build or renovate churches, or display the cross.
The demand carries weight because ISIS, which grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, has become the most feared militia in Syria. It has now been disavowed by Osama bin Laden’s replacement as al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and is effectively at war with the rest of the rebel movement, including Jabhat al-Nusra, the group seen by al-Qaeda as its representative in Syria.
It controls nearly all of Raqqa province in the north-east, where it is attempting to build the institutions of an Islamic state. The decree refers to Christians as “dhimmis” – effectively protected minorities – a term that originated in the seventh century when the Muslim world was ruled by a single religious leader, the Caliph.
Raqqa, which is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim in make-up, had a small Christian community but much if not all of it has already fled. When The Telegraph visited Raqqa city not long after forces aligned to al-Qaeda took over last year, the two alcohol shops had already been smashed up and scrawled with Islamist graffiti, along with the town’s only restaurant that served alcohol.
There was said to be one Christian family still living in the town, but if so they were in hiding. Later, the crosses were removed from the top of the city’s two churches.
But there is growing resentment among activists towards the stringent controls ISIS has imposed on the general population, including the wearing of the veil by women and separation of the sexes, even in bread queues. A photograph circulated of an Assad-regime flag hanging from a house, an unthinkable act of defiance until recently.
Christians used to make up around one in ten of Syria’s 22 million population, but the civil war has forced an estimated 500,000 to flee their homes and villages, which are scattered across the country. Some 1,200 are thought to have been killed.
As a religious minority they enjoyed protection under President Assad, and as such have become an indirect target of the Sunni Muslim led uprising.
John Pontifex, of Aid to Church in Need, a Catholic charity that has highighted the plight of Christians in Syria, said: “We have already received reports of this nature,and if true, they spell out loud and clear the degree to which Christians are under attack and at risk.
“There seems to be a desire to flush Chrisians out or reduce them to second class status.”
Imposition of the so-called “dhimmi” rules conforms precisely with regime claims that the rebels are seeking to take Syria back to the Middle Ages.
Aymenn al-Tamimi, an Oxford University-based academic expert on Iraq and Syrian jihadists, said the imposition of the jizya was derived from a verse in the Quran, which demanded submission by the “people of the Book” – Jews and Christians – who did not follow Islam.
In a post to the Syria Comment website, he added: “In case ISIS’s ambitions to a global caliphate were still not apparent to anyone, ISIS’s official Twitter account for Raqqa province had this to say on the imposition of the dhimmi pact: ‘Today in Raqqa and tomorrow in Rome.'”