We rarely see the images of Christian suffering around the world on the evening news. That’s why, when Syrian Christian refugees share their personal experiences, we should all pay attention and hear their voices.
As many as 80 percent of Syria’s Christians have left their country since the start of the civil war in 2011, while 50 percent of Iraq’s Christians have been uprooted since 2006.
That’s according to a report produced last year by Christian charities Open Doors International, Served and Middle East Concern. It says the arrival of ISIS was only the “tipping point” of a trend already gathering pace as Christians experienced an “overall loss of hope for a safe and secure future”.
As Christians have fled, they are sharing their stories with World Watch Monitor. In the snippets below, the interviewees are referred to by their initials alone, to preserve their safety.
“We lived in Mosul [northern Iraq] until 2005 [when] bullets were shot into our home. Between June and July, 2005, terrorists tried to kidnap our son three times, but he was able to escape,” said S. H., a Christian father of five, adding that after this he moved with his family, including three disabled children, to Qaraqosh, 30km southeast of Mosul.
But after Islamic State arrived there on Aug. 6, 2014, the family was forced to flee again. “They gave us three options: conversion, death or jizya [a special tax for non-Muslims],” said SH, adding that this time they fled to Lebanon – because “it is Christian and Arab-speaking”.
Another man, a 43-year-old father of two girls, identified by his first initial, N., fled to Lebanon in February 2015 after ISIS gave him 24 hours written notice to leave Baghdad, his job and his home, or he and his family would be killed.
“My relatives – my cousin and his grandparents – were killed by bombings at their home, because they didn’t want to quit their job or convert. Colleagues of mine were kidnapped. Some were freed for US$16,000, others were killed. They were told they must deny Jesus or they would be killed,” he said.
It is not possible to know precisely how many people have been killed by ISIS but mass graves were found last week, and contained thousands of people may give us an idea.
‘Christians must not be alive’
For 70 years another Christian family, identified as S and HK, had resided in the city of Hasakah, northeast Syria, where they had lived at peace with their Muslim neighbors. All that changed with the arrival of Islamic State.
“Our neighbors joined ISIS [and the group] used [them] to communicate with us [that we had] three options: convert, leave, or die. They burned our farm at night to kill us, but we were not there. We escaped, going from village to village. We have two brothers, but now we don’t know anything about them. We have had no contact since we fled,” S. said.
A 71-year-old Catholic Christian, identified as HSH, recalled how he and his brother fled Aleppo, Syria on December 27, 2013, to find refuge at his farm in Raqqa, only to find themselves in further peril.
After the latest reports coming out of Syria mentioned the loss of Maaloula to rebels led by Al Qaeda linked fighters, I couldn’t help remembering my special visit to this beautiful Syrian Christian village. Maaloula is situated in the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains, about 50 km/31 miles from Damascus and at an altitude of 1500 meters/4921 feet. When you are approaching the village, its small houses look like they have been suspended in mid air. The scenery is enchanting, I can still remember the beautiful fig trees and grapevines. Besides being considered the holiest Christian site in Syria, it has always been a place of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims that came to Maaloula looking for blessings and to make offerings. Above all, Maaloula was always a place where Christians and Muslims lived in harmony and respected each other. To see now images of the Syrian Christian who were forced to flee from their homes, to abandon the village that saw them born, was very sad. To hear their tales how their monasteries were desecrated with many Christian symbols and images destroyed was upsetting.
“Our taxi driver was shot in the neck. My brother and I were assaulted and then locked up in the chicken stag pen, a dark room. We were locked up for three days. This was the last time I saw my brother. Our captors wanted to know if we were the owners of the farm. They stole my money. My neighbors later told me that this was ISIS,” he said.
“We were fed dog food, and they told me that Christians must not be alive. We were told: ‘convert to Islam, or be killed.’ They told me if I converted, they would give the farm back to me. The jizya was also an option. But some of my neighbors, who were Armenian, were killed after paying jizya.”
He said he was able to escape with the help of his Muslim neighbors when the Syrian army attacked ISIS, and that he fled to Lebanon as he had heard the UN could help him.
“I have waited three years. The UN has not helped me directly. I had an interview at the French embassy; they told me it would take 20 days to get back to me. It has been two months,” he said.
At the time of the interview he lived with friends in Beirut and had survived three heart attacks. “I do not want to go back to Raqqa or Aleppo,” he said. “I have had too much trauma and could never go back. I don’t want to remember what happened. It is too difficult.”
When ISIS entered the northern Iraqi town of Batnaya in August 2014, a Chaldean Christian family were unable to flee because of illness in the family. Militants came to their house repeatedly, threatening to rape and kill them if they would not convert or if they called on anyone for help, according to 63-year-old GHG.
“After 22 days, ISIS took our whole family into El Sharkat prison in Mosul and stole everything we had,” he said.
“[They] separated my 14-year-old son and me from my wife, daughter and our handicapped child. I thought they would kill my son and me, and I did not know what would happen to my family. After four days they took my son and me to another prison, in Kirkuk, where we were for five days until they released us. In the meantime, [my wife] had been released from prison because of our handicapped child. She took our daughter and our handicapped child to a church in Kirkuk. This is where we were reunited.”
Fearing for their lives, they fled to Beirut, but he said his daughter has psychological trauma and that they will never go back:
“We escaped death by a miracle … Next time we will not survive.”
–Metro Voice and wire services