In northeastern Syria, Christians are ‘weakest link, because we want to live in peace and reject war’

“AT LEAST 300 CHRISTIANS have been forced to leave the towns of Ras al-Ain, Derbasiyah, Tall Tamr and one area of al-Malikiyah, and we are afraid that if the fighting continues, there could be a still greater exodus, which might even include the town of Qamishli, where there are 2,300 Christian families living at present.” These are the words of Msgr. Nidal Thomas, a Chaldean priest who serves as the patriarchal vicar for northeastern Syria. He is based in Al-Hassaka, the largest city in the region.

File photo of Christians in Al-Hassaka, northeastern Syria

In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, he said that “we don’t know what is actually happening. Every hour we hear reports from the Kurds, the Turks, the Americans and the Russians about victims and people fleeing. But we don’t know the real truth. The only thing we know for certain is that the bombings and above all the massacres committed by Turks against our community are forcing more and more Christians to flee.”

For now, only few Christian families have sought refuge in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan; Msgr. Thomas said that it will be difficult for Christian refugees to choose this semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq: “Life there is too expensive for the impoverished Syrian Christians. Quite apart from the fact that the Iraqi people have not done anything to prevent the dramatic situation that has unfortunately unfolded in Syria. There were thousands of Christian families in need in our country. No one tried to defend us.”

Today the Christians in northeast Syria also fear a return of jihadism, despite the killing of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. “Unfortunately, this is an eventuality we have to take into account,” said Msgr. Thomas, who added that many ISIS fighters have now joined the Free Syrian Army, which has entered the region of Ras al-Ain, fighting side-by-side with the Turkish army.

The priest issued an appeal to the international community. “We need help,” he said; “We Christians are the ones who have suffered most as a result of this interminable conflict. We are the weakest link, because we want to live in peace and reject war. Two-thirds of the Christians have left the country and the remaining third might not be able to survive. And meanwhile, the Western countries are fighting among themselves to divide up Syria, which also has been brought to its knees by the international sanctions.”

—Marta Petrosillo