Syrian President Basher Assad isn’t the only target of Syrian rebels as Syria’s Orthodox Christian Church reports “ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” by al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant groups in the embattled Syrian city of Homs.
The report from the Vatican news agency Fides says Brigade Faruq, which has links with elements of al-Qaeda in Iraq and Islamist mercenaries from Libya, has expelled 90 percent of Christians living in Homs, nearly 50,000 people.
Reportedly, the armed Islamists went door to door in the Christian neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan informing the homeowners that if they did not leave immediately they would be shot. Then pictures of their corpses would be taken and sent to al-Jazeera, along with the message that the Syrian government had killed them.
As such, the men, women and children -- denied by the Islamists from taking any of their belongings -- were forced to flee to mountain villages 30 miles outside of Homs, their homes occupied by the militants who claimed the owners’ possessions as “war-booty from the Christians.”
According to reports by Barnabas Aid, a relief agency assisting Syrian Christians, the forced Christian exodus from Homs has been ongoing since the beginning of February when armed Islamists murdered more than 200 Christians, “including entire families with young children.”
At that time a representative of Barnabas Aid pleaded, “Christians are being forced to flee the city to the safety of government-controlled areas. Muslim rebel fighters and their families are taking over their homes.”
Unfortunately, Islamist attacks against Syria’s Christian community, including kidnappings and murder, have occurred almost from the onset of the popular uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad which began in March 2011.
These murders, which have killed over 100 Christians, include the hanging of a 28-year-old man; a 40 year-old father of two shot dead; two young men killed while waiting in line at a bakery; and a 37-year-old father with a pregnant wife, his body cut into pieces and thrown in a river.
Most recently, a car bombing targeted the Christian district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, killing three and wounding 30. As Giuseppe Nazzaro, the Vicar Apostolic of Aleppo, said, “In this situation the Islamist and terrorist movements are making headway,” adding “These are bad times for religious minorities.”
Unhappily, these sectarian attacks on Christians have sparked fears that Syria could become like Iraq, where church attacks, kidnappings and forced expulsions by armed Islamist militant groups after the US invasion in 2003 drove Iraq’s Christian population from 1.4 million to less than 300,000 today.
For its part, leaders of the Syrian opposition have denied sectarian motives against Christians, noting that, even though the Syrian insurgency is rooted in the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority, all groups are welcome to join the Syrian rebellion.
Not surprisingly, that open invitation to join its ranks has gone largely unanswered among Syrian Christians who make up 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million, mostly Sunni Muslim populace.
Specifically, Syrian Christians have long viewed Assad’s secular regime as being generally more tolerant of Syria’s religious minorities, a belief certainly buttressed by the current anti-Christian violence being perpetrated against them by Syrian Islamists.
To that end, despite the Syrian government’s horrific, murderous crackdown on civilian protesters, Syrian Christians have mostly stayed away from the street protests, worried that the alternative to the Assad regime is, according to former Israeli ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, “chaos, civil war, and possibly a radical Islamist takeover.”
As was the case in Libya, that latter possibility becomes more of a reality as Islamist terror movements in and out of Syria are vying to gain influence over the Syrian revolt in hopes of gathering power if Assad falls.
For example, Sheikh Adnan al-Arour, a Syrian Salafi cleric exiled in Saudi Arabia, has been calling for jihad against the “infidel” Assad regime. Al-Arour’s exhortations have garnered him the open allegiance of several Syrian Islamist rebel brigades, including “Supporters of God Brigade” in Hama, which has praised him as “the leader of the revolution.”
In eastern Syria, the “God is Great” Brigade proclaimed its formation in an internet video that declared their fight to be a “jihad,” and which they exhorted “our fellow revolutionaries…to declare jihad in the path of God.”
The Syrian Islamist brigades are also getting assistance from outside terror organizations and mercenaries from Iraq and Libya, aid which Director of National Intelligence James Clapper acknowledged in February when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that “al-Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.”
That terrorist reach was on display recently when the Al-Nusra Front, a front group for al-Qaeda in Iraq according to US intelligence officials, claimed responsibility for a double suicide bombing in Damascus that killed 27 and wounded more than 100.
Finally, evidence of the rising Islamist influence in the Syrian uprising was on view when several prominent figures quit the Syrian National Council (SNC), the most widely-recognized coalition of anti-regime forces, alleging that the Muslim Brotherhood had “hijacked” the SNC agenda.
It should be noted that the news of the Islamist crackdown on Christians comes at the same time that the UN is reporting that Syrian rebels are using children as fighters and are kidnapping, torturing and executing supporters of Bashar Assad and members of his security forces.
Nevertheless, President Obama has reacted to the growing sectarian violence in Syria by recently pledging to send “non-lethal” aid to the Syrian rebels, such as communications help and medical aid.
However, given the attacks it has suffered at their hands, the President may want to earmark some of those humanitarian supplies to Syria’s besieged Christian community.
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