The Christian community in Syria will cease to exist if the country’s sectarian civil war does not end soon, Syrian Christian leaders said on Monday.
Members of the Christian leadership in Syria said at the Heritage Foundation that the burning of churches and homes, abductions, and executions has prompted more than 400,000 Christians to either leave their homes or the country. Their minority community has been a casualty of the almost three-year civil war between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and a rebel opposition increasingly dominated by al Qaeda-linked terrorist groups.
The leaders urged the United States and the West to help find a solution to the crisis that has claimed more than 130,000 lives and displaced millions. Negotiators—currently engaged in peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition—are attempting to open up areas blockaded by the government to humanitarian aid, but there has so far been little progress toward the removal of Assad.
"Today our Christian community is a broken community. It is a suffering community," said Rev. Riad Jarjour, a Presbyterian clergyman from Homs. "If it continues in this way, there will be a time where there are no Christians in Syria."
The Christian leaders provided examples of the persecution of their community in Syria.
Jarjour said more than 80 Christians have been detained by Islamic militants in the western city of Homs. Islamist groups, such as the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, force residents to either adopt strict sharia law or leave, destroying ancient churches and uprooting families from their homes in the process.
Dozens of Christians have also been executed, he added. Children have been given boxes with the heads of Christians inside.
Bishop Jean Kawak from the Syrian Orthodox Church said the militants have abducted nuns and bishops.
"It has increased fear within our communities and has contributed to the refugee and emigration crisis," Kawak said. "The war and its trampling of human rights has caused the destruction of many lives and the destruction of our culture, our history, and our heritage."
Assad appears to have largely turned a blind eye to the plight of Christians in his country despite his pledge to "fight terrorism." Even before the uprising against his authoritarian rule, Syria ranked among the top 50 countries with the worst Christian persecution, according to a 2010 report by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors.
Kawak said Syrian Christians desire to live in peace with moderate Muslims in a secular, constitutional democracy.
"Unfortunately these ideas are being pushed into the future," he said. "During this present crisis, the Christians are working for safety and survival."
Destabilizing conflicts have taken a toll on Christian communities across the Middle East, including in Egypt. Islamic militants have destroyed Coptic Christian churches there and killed members following the military ouster of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi last year.