Edward Dark of Al Monitor interviews a range of observers in the Christian neighborhoods of Aleppo, Syria.
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. . . Yousef is a shopkeeper in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Sulaimaniyah, which has seen almost constant rebel shelling since the civil war divided Aleppo in July 2012. His brother serves in the Syrian army in Damascus. In conversation, he conveyed to me some of the predominant questions and anxieties going through his community.
“Why aren’t the moderate Muslims doing more to stop the extremists in their midst?” he asked bitterly. “Do they agree with their ideology and extremism? We saw hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets against the abuses of the regime, so why are we not now seeing those thousands of protesters against what IS is doing? Worse, we are now seeing many people and rebel groups joining them. There are so many hundreds of these Islamic rebel groups, but they are all the same, they all have this extremist ideology against us. My conclusion is that these groups and IS are fully supported and backed in what they are doing by the anti-government forces."
The Christians of Syria had for the most part tried to stay out of the country’s raging civil conflict, but had often found themselves embroiled in its messy and bloody events. On more than one occasion, the Christians became the focal point of action, as in Maaloula, Yabrud and Kassab, as well as high- profile kidnappings of nuns and clerics.
But there are voices starting to question whether they should remain neutral in a conflict which they view as having mutated to blatantly targeting them and threatening their community with annihilation. Many believe that taking up arms, at least for self-defense, is a wise choice, but others feel it would only further enrage and inflame their worst enemies, spurring them into perpetrating even more heinous crimes.
As with many of West Aleppo’s inhabitants, some Christians too have fled the violence that has torn apart their city; many will never return. But unlike the mass exodus of Christians seen elsewhere, Aleppo’s Christians have largely stayed in their city, suggesting that Aleppo’s Christian community remains attached to its ancestral home, and are an integral part of the city’s diverse social, ethnic and cultural mosaic.
But fear of the kind of ethnic cleansing that is being seen in Iraq strikes deep. George, a mechanic who owns a garage in Sulaimaniyah, told me, “The Christians of Aleppo will not stay if the regime loses control of the city. They will be finished here, maybe for good. The takfiri jihadists will make sure of that. Their plan is to clear the nation of all non-Sunni people. They are now using fear tactics and propaganda to intimidate people to leave even before they arrive; it’s that easy. This is why they do all their grisly crimes on camera, to win without firing a bullet. And when they enter new areas, they burn down our churches and confiscate our homes and businesses. They want to erase all traces of us from our own lands. What kind of message are they spreading? Why would you want someone to join your religion by the threat of death?”
George accuses the West of being complicit in the removal of Christians from the Middle East. “Why didn’t the United States take military action when the ISIS persecuted Christians in Raqqa and Mosul? Why only now when it is Yazidis being targeted? There is a plot to remove all Christians from the Middle East, it is crazy, the West has the same plan as the terrorists for us! It is clear, look, now France is taking in all Christian refugees from Iraq, but in Mali it sent in its army to defeat the terrorists. Are they only terrorists in Iraq and Mali, but revolutionaries in Syria?”
Many of the points Yousef and George raised were being echoed across the Christian community in Aleppo, indicating their shared predicament and anxieties no matter what their political affiliations. Not all Christians in Aleppo support the regime; in fact, a large number of them do not, but equally significant is that you won’t find any that support the rebels, either.
The recent repeated rebel shelling of the Syriac Catholic Church, a large and iconic building in the heart of the old Christian community at Azizeh, is seen by many as a clear message by the rebels, revealing their true intent toward their community.
“There is no more need for the pretense of liberation and freedom.” Yousef said, “They [rebels] have successfully sold that to the outside world while they pursue their real agendas inside Syria in broad daylight.”
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Edward Dark, “Aleppo’s forgotten Christians,” Al Monitor, August 11, 2014