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Ghaith al-Ahmad

Christian exodus from Syria

The Islamic State group has persecuted religious minorities [Getty]

Date of publication: 29 October, 2014

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The rise of the Islamic State group in Syria's east has left exiled Christians with little hope of returning home.

Every evening, Fadi sits on the banks of the River Elbe's waters in Dresden, hoping that spray on his face will evoke memories of his home on the Euphrates.

Fadi fled to Germany from Deir Ezzor, in the east of Syria, after it had been shelled relentlessly by regime forces. Opponents of President Bashar Al Assad had previously joined with the al-Nusra Front - al-Qaeda's local franchise - to take control of much of the city.

Fadi and his family first moved to the more stable city of al-Hasakah. But as the war crept closer again, he brought his family to the Syrian capital, hoping to find the security that had eluded so much of the country.

A year and a half after they were first displaced, Fadi learned from activists in Deir Ezzor that his property had been confiscated by armed groups who controlled the city. Jihadi fighters had considered Fadi's home part of the spoils of war, and had aso seized the homes of other Christian families. Fadi realised that returning would be practically impossible under the current circumstances.

He could never have imagined that the city that protected thousands of Armenian refugees when they were displaced from Eastern Anatolia during the First World War would witness another exodus of Christians a hundred years later.

As Christians, life in the city had become impossible following the killings and kidnappings by the bandits who roamed the streets of Deir Ezzor.

Home lost, refuge found

Malik - not his real name - was another Christian of Deir Ezzor. He had attempted to join the armed Syrian opposition after a series of peaceful demonstrations, but objections from rebel group leaders prevented him from becoming a fighter.

"I spent my childhood and school years with my Muslim friends without there ever being any disagreements between us," Malik said, speaking from the USA, his new home. "After extremist groups took control of the city, I became a traitor or an unbeliever in the eyes of some, and the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) changed the name of the city to al-Khair province, or 'province of the good'. That was a clear sign to us that Syria, for the time being at least, or perhaps the next decades to come, is not a safe place."

In June 2013, a popular Italian priest, Paolo Dall'Oglio, who had lived in Syria for decades and was renowned for his opposition to the Assad government, was kidnapped in al-Raqqa by IS militants. The brutal act against a man of peace had a serious impact on Christian families living in Syria, particularly in the east of the country, the territory IS controlled.

Father Paolo's murder extinguished any hope for Christian families that they would ever return home.

According to Abu Azzam, an activist from Deir Ezzor, the kidnapping of Father Paolo explains why so many Christians left the city. When IS fighters entered the city in June 2013, any remaining Christian families fled.

The kidnapping of Father Paolo explains why so many Christians left the city. When IS entered, any remaining fled. 

Deir Ezzor houses a number of sites that are important to the collective memory of Armenians, particularly a restored church that was built in 1900, but now, all the Christians have gone.

The grey area

Fadi used to avoid discussions about Syria, which led some to accuse him of occupying a grey area, where he does not support the opposition or the Syrian regime. This "greyness" describes the position of most Christians in Syria.

"The Syrian regime is corrupt, but it used to provide security, which is necessary," said Fadi. He and other Christians did not find this security in the rebel-held areas.

George Sabra, a member of the opposition coalition, the Syrian National Council, said that the opposition had failed to deliver a clear vision of its goals, or to reassure ethnic and religious minorities in Syria - despite the slogans of unity that were chanted during anti-regime protests.

This failure, coupled with the rise of counter-revolutionary elements, associated the opposition with the criminal acts of bandits in the minds of many, Sabra added. 

Deir Ezzor was home to an estimated 1,200 Armenian Christians of a total population of half a million.

Getting the stats

Al-Araby al-Jadeed sent a questionnaire to 60 Christian families from the city who now reside in the USA, Europe or Arab countries.

The results of the non-scientific poll indicate that all sixty families agreed that the rise of armed organisations in the city was the main reason for leaving, while 39 families added that additional factors included a fear of "random" shelling by regime forces or to escape other Syrian government operations.

All respondents also agreed that the confiscation of private property from Christian families played a role in their migration. And a majority of respondents believe that the situation in Syria will come to resemble Iraq, with the forced displacement of Christians and other sects if IS continues to spread.

War crimes in Deir Ezzor

Hisham Marwah, a member of the Syrian National Council's legal committee, and a professor of comparative law, said that forced migration is either conducted by one group against another by using violence, or a consequence of conflict, when people feel threatened in their homes and migrate to other places for safety.

Marwah said that if sufficient evidence shows that armed groups have been confiscating Christian property and forced them out of their homes, it would constitute a war crime according to international law.

Syrians have had a long history of religious and ethnic pluralism, and the Syrian regime is responsible for the sectarian strife and displacement in the country, added Marwah. 

"Save what remains"
is the message that Malik wants to convey to the world. Armed groups in Deir Ezzor threaten all residents, regardless of their religion, he said - and so does the terror enforced by government forces.

Abu Azzam added that the migration of Christians from Deir Ezzor is a great loss for the people of the city. Fadi, meanwhile stays silent, and plays with pebbles on the banks of the Elbe, hoping that one day he will return to the city of his birth.    

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Al Araby Al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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