The Silent Exodus of Syria's Christians


Date:  2013-02-10

By Dan Wooding
Founder of ASSIST Ministries

Here, refugees leave Qusayr on their way to Lebanon. It only takes 45 minutes to get there by car

SYRIA (ANS) -- According to Nina Shea, Director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom (, in Syria's rebellion, "no religious or ethnic group has been spared horrific levels of loss and suffering, but its 2,000-year-old Christian minority is now facing a distinct persecution."

Writing for the National Review (, Shea says, "Under the cover of war and chaos, this group, which alone lacks militias of its own, is easy prey for Islamists and criminals, alike. These assaults are driving out the Christians en masse. This 2,000-year-old community, numbering around 2 million is the largest church in the Middle East after Egypt's Copts, and it now faces extinction.

She went on to say that Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East, despite recent heart surgery, is now constantly on the road in Lebanon and Iraq trying to cope with the refugee crisis.

Armed insurgents with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Qusayr have transformed the city of 40,000 residents into a place where Christians
no longer feel safe

She then quoted him in a message she had received as saying: "We are witnessing another Arab country losing its Christian Assyrian minority. When it happened in Iraq nobody believed Syria's turn would come. Christian Assyrians are fleeing massively from threats, kidnappings, rapes and murders. Behind the daily reporting about bombs there is an ethno-religious cleansing taking place, and soon Syria can be emptied of its Christians."

Shea, who is also the co-author of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians" (Thomas Nelson Publishers, March 2013), said that official information and media reports about the Christians' fate has been sparse, but added that a new report by Nuri Kino, a Swedish journalist of Assyrian background, "sheds valuable light on the atrocities visited upon the Christians inside Syria," and their ordeals in attempting to escape, relying as they must on exploitative human-trafficking networks that have sprung up.

Entitled "Between the Barbed Wire," the report resulted from a trip sponsored by a Swedish charity, the Syriac Orthodox Youth Organization, to assess the needs of refugees. It is based on over a hundred interviews this past Christmas with Christian refugees in Turkey and Lebanon.

A destroyed church building in Homs, Syria
(Photo: Barnabas Fund)

She said that the refugees and the Lebanese bishops whom Kino and his team interview relate that Christians are leaving in a torrent. Once they cross into Lebanon, guided by Middle Eastern versions of "coyotes" through a harrowing series of checkpoints guarded by various sides in the conflict, they mostly seek out the local Christian communities for help.

A clearly overwhelmed Archbishop George Saliba, on Mount Lebanon, says about the refugees: "I want to help as many as I can, but it is not sustainable. We have hundreds of Syrian refugees who arrive every week. I don't know what to do."

Shea stated that elsewhere in Lebanon, St. Gabriel's monastery has opened its 75 unheated rooms to over a hundred refugees. In another Lebanese Christian town, the Syrian Catholic patriarch Ignatius Ephrem Josef III has converted a school building into a shelter for the hundreds of refugees there now and the others constantly arriving. The patriarch describes it as the "great exodus taking place in silence."

"He also says he houses Christians who fled several years ago from Iraq. All of the Christian towns visited for the report are scrambling to keep up with the influx of Syrian Christians. Church leaders were grateful for the beds, washing machines, heaters, and medicine brought by the Swedish visitors," wrote Nina Shea.

Two Syrian Christians who are not
ashamed of the cross

Some of the Syrians, she added, say they plan to stay in Lebanon until Syria "calms down" and they can return to their homes. Many others say going back is "unthinkable" and are making plans to try to get to Europe either on valid visas or by paying smugglers the going rate of $20,000. They are largely small-business owners and skilled professionals - an engineer and his family, a jeweler and his, a hairdresser, a medical student, etc.

Many hope to be smuggled to Sweden and Germany, where they can receive some state subsidies until they find work. The town of Sodertalje seems to be a popular destination, with 35 new Christian families arriving from Syria each week. Kino, himself a citizen of Sodertalje, relates that there are already many Syrian Christians living there, and Arabic is more common than Swedish.

"The refugees were panic-stricken, pointing to some horrifying triggering event that forced them out - a kidnapping of a relative, a murder, or a robbery," Shea continued. "They feel they are targeted for being Christian, which means that militants and criminals can assault them with impunity. Some point to a government that fails to protect them; others to Islamists rebels who want to drive them out."

A refugee tells Kino: "Two men from a strong Arabic tribe decided one day to occupy our farmland, just like that. When I went to the police to report, I was told there was nothing they could do. The police chief was very clear that they would not act, as they didn't want the tribe to turn against the regime."

Syrian Christians, who are being terrorized with ever greater frequency by radical rebels, are fleeing to Lebanon out of fear for their lives. Many families have found temporary refuge in the country's Bekaa Valley after being driven out of Syria by "freedom fighters"

A woman from Hassake recounts how her husband and son were shot in the head by Islamists. "Our only crime is being Christians," she answers when asked if there had been a dispute.

A father says: "We're not poor, we didn't run from poverty. We ran from fear. I have to think about my twelve-year-old daughter. She's easy prey for kidnappers. Three children of our friends were kidnapped. In two cases they paid enormous ransoms to get the children back, and in one case they paid but got the child back dead."

Another man attests: "In Syria, you don't know who is your friend and who is your enemy. The wealthy have it the worst. Criminals wait in line to kidnap them."

The refugees, said Shea, all fear the Islamists. When the jihadi rebel units show up and take over a town, like Rasel-Eyn, it loses its Christian population over night. One man from there tells Kino: "The so-called Free Syrian Army, or rebels, or whatever you choose to call them in the West, emptied the city of its Christians, and soon there won't be a single Christian in the whole country."

Nina Shea

"There is no complete data on the number of refugees," she continued. "How many Christians have fled is not known and escapees continue to come across the border each day. We are only beginning to understand the peril they face."

Archdeacon Youkhana pleads: "The world must open their eyes to the plight."

Note: An international human-rights lawyer for over thirty years, Nina Shea joined Hudson Institute as a Senior Fellow in November 2006, where she directs the Center for Religious Freedom. Since 1999, Shea has served as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. She has been appointed as a U.S. delegate to the United Nation's main human rights body by both Republican and Democratic administrations.

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