Last week, during a markup of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher asserted that the Assad regime was “the protector of the Christians” in Syria.
As Syrian Christians who grew up in Syria, we would beg to differ. Hundreds of innocent Christians seeking freedom have been tortured to death in Assad’s jails or shot to death by his brutal thugs – including the activist Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed at a protest, then killed in spirit because Assad forces prevented his friends from going to church to pray for his soul. Human rights lawyer Khalil Maatouk has been detained in Assad’s jails in Damascus for over four years for the “crime” of defending detainees in Assad’s jails.
These anecdotes are not new and are not isolated incidents. Christians never had true freedom of religion under the Assad regime; for decades, it used a mixture of incentives and threats to tightly control Christian clergy and ensure that they were not free to speak their mind. Christians were much more free before Assad took power, when Protestant Christian Fares al-Khouri was elected prime minister of Syria in democratic elections in 1954. But under Assad, Rohrbacher might be surprised to know, Christians are legally banned from becoming the head of state.
It’s a strange protector of Christians who nurtures and shelters their worst enemies against the will of the entire world. Assad did that, too — starting in 2003, his intelligence services worked closely with the terrorist fanatics who would eventually form ISIS because he wanted to prevent America from stabilizing Iraq.
The Syrian revolution began six years ago as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian movement, but Assad released dozens of extremists from his jails in an effort to give the revolution a more Islamist character and present the false choice between him and the radical Islamists he nurtured. According to the Treasury Department, Assad continues to buy “a great deal of oil” from ISIS constituting millions of dollars in trade. At one point, oil sales to Assad accounted for 72 percent of ISIS’ income from revenues, according to documents uncovered from a U.S. Special Forces raid on ISIS Oil Minister Abu Sayyaf.
Christians are not safe in Assad’s Syria. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, over 60 percent of all churches in Syria that have been destroyed during the war have been by the Assad regime. Many Christians have been killed by Assad’s indiscriminate barrel bombs and aerial attacks in the past six years most notably many who were bombed to death by Assad warplanes and attacked by Hezbollah in Yabroud, a mixed Christian-Muslim town along the Lebanese border that was a bright spot for interfaith relations among Syrians after it was liberated from Assad in 2012.
Assad views Christians as a sectarian card used to preserve his interests and preserve his regime. While Assad sends delegations of priests all around the world, including the United States, to defend his regime and Hezbollah, have we forgotten the Christian priest who was murdered and dragged through the streets by Syrian security agents for defying Assad during the mid-2000s Kurdish revolt?
Privately, many Christian leaders who have defended Assad’s regime and Hezbollah in trips to Western countries have met with us and sent us messages for the past few years explaining to us how they’d been coerced to do so by the regime.
As leaders of Syrian Christians for Peace, an international Syrian Christian organization with chapters in the United States, the European Union, and Turkey, and which was mentioned by Congresswoman Louis Frankel in response to Rohrabacher’s falsehoods, we have fought Assad’s false narrative of propaganda for the past six years.
We, along with a network of Christians inside Syria, have worked in the opposition pushing for secular democracy and human rights for all Syrians. Many Syrian Christians are represented in the highest levels of the Syrian opposition including the Higher Negotiations Committee and Syrian Coalition, which have been recognized as the legitimate representatives of the Syrian people by the United States and the international community.
Syrians right now, both Christians and Muslim, are the victims of a tyrannical regime on the one side and radical Islamist terrorists such as ISIS and al-Qaeda and other radical groups on the other. Yet the vast majority of Syrians inside Syria and throughout the world simply want a secular democratic country like we enjoy here in the United States, with equal rights for all citizens. Syrian Christians lived in Syria for centuries before Assad but only reached the highest levels of government when Syria was democratic. Rohrbacher’s adoption of the sectarian narrative peddled by the Assad regime is not helpful towards the goal of secular democracy and only places Christians like us in more danger.
If Congress really wants to protect Syrian Christians, it should pass the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2017, which would put sanctions on all those supporting the regime’s war crimes. These sanctions, which would also apply to Russia and Iran, would give President Trump an important tool to push forward a negotiated settlement that removes Assad from power, and transitions Syria into a secular democracy where all Syrians can be protected regardless of religion or ethnicity.
Bahnan Yamin is the National Secretary of Syrian Christians for Peace and is based in Burbank, California.
Samira Moubayed is a board member of Syrian Christians for Peace and is a research ecologist at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris, France.
Mirna Barq is a board member of Syrian Christians for Peace and is also the President of the Syrian American Council. She lives in Orlando, Florida where she is an engineer.
George Stifo is a board member of Syrian Christians for Peace and is the President of the U.S. branch of the Assyrian Democratic Organization, a Syrian opposition party of Assyrian Christians. He lives in Boston, MA and was previously a member of the Syrian National Council of the Syrian Opposition.