The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The plight of Syria’s vulnerable Christian minority

Fighters from the Islamic State parade in a commandeered military vehicle down a main road in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014. (AP)

Before a brutal civil war engulfed Syria, the country was testament to the religious and ethnic diversity of the Middle East. Arabs of different faiths, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrian Christians and others lived side by side, embracing a rather durable Syrian nationalism.

But the increasingly sectarian character of the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State threaten to unravel the rich tapestry of Syrian society. In neighboring Iraq, the ravages of militants have forced tens of thousands of religious minorities, including Christians, to flee. Last year, the top Christian priest in Baghdad likened the present moment to the horrifying onslaught of the Mongol hordes in the 13th Century, which devastated the region and redrew its political map.

On Tuesday morning, Islamic State fighters reportedly carried out the mass abduction of dozens of Christians — some reports suggest at least 90 — living in villages near the city of Hasakah, in northeastern Syria. In a conflict shaped by endless reports of atrocities, the incident is alarming for its overtly communal nature. Those kidnapped belong to a shrinking population of Assyrian Christians, who have called Hasakah province and Nineveh, across the border in Iraq, home for centuries. Assyrian Christians speak a version of Aramaic, the language thought to have been spoken by Jesus.

The Islamic State is known for its horrific treatment of hostages, including the execution of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians carried out by the militant group's Libyan branch this month. Last year, after the militants seized the Iraqi city of Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, they set about desecrating Christian graves and shrines, including the tomb of the prophet Jonah.

There is speculation that the Assyrian hostages, who include women, children and the elderly, could be used as bargaining chips in the ongoing conflict. The Islamic State is battling Kurdish militias, reinforced by Assyrian Christian fighters as well as those from the persecuted Yazidi sect, in this strategic corner of Syria.

Christians make up about 6 to 10 percent of Syria's population. According to the BBC, Assyrian Christians numbered around 40,000 in Syria, but there are fears that the figure may be smaller now. The majority of the global Assyrian community live in the diaspora in the United States and Europe, including sizable populations in Germany and Sweden, where Assyrians are even represented by their own professional soccer team.

Syria's diverse Christian population is not uniformly on one side of the conflict or another, but it has advocated fiercely for the defense of the country's inclusive traditions. Last year, a delegation of Syrian Christian priests from various congregations visited the United States, decrying militant attacks on Christian sites of worship and lamenting the presence of radical foreign fighters amid the rebellion. But they stopped short of publicly declaring support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a nominally secular autocrat who has framed himself as a protector of Syria's religious minorities.

The hideous deeds of the Islamic State feed into Assad's narrative. Even among Christians who oppose the regime, there is tremendous apprehension about the rebel forces. It's a far cry from the early days of the revolt, which brought Syrians of all stripes out into the streets. The violence that followed, spurred by the heavy-handedness of the Assad regime as well as the mushrooming of extremist militias, offers a gloomy picture for the country's minorities.

"You can’t trust anyone anymore," a Christian man — and regime opponent — from the city of Homs told researchers conducting a survey of Syrians that was published last week. "Homs is no longer the Homs we used to know; everyone is afraid of each other."

The 29-year-old man went on: "I hope that the rebels will have their victory, but with the terrorists like [the Islamic State] and the likes of it being in the area, I do not think that the situation will get better."

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