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Religious Minorities in Syria: Caught in the Middle

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. SMITH of New Jersey. Mr. Speaker, yesterday, I chaired a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations and the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. We turned our attention to an overlooked aspect of the crisis in Syria--the religious minorities caught in the middle of the conflict and apparently targeted by government forces as well as rebel groups.

More than 93,000 Syrians have been killed in this horrendous and seemingly endless civil war. More than 4.25 million people are displaced within Syria, with millions more fleeing to safety in the surrounding countries of Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. It is disturbing to note that one in five of the refugees is Christian although Christians in Syria make-up one in ten of the pre-war population of 22 million people. This would seem to indicate that Christians are even more fearful for their lives and safety than other segments of the Syrian population.

Before the war, Syria was a fairly pluralistic society, with Alawites, Shias, Ismailis, Yezidis, Druze, Christians, Jews, and Sunnis living in relative peace, side by side. The situation was far from perfect, as President Bashar al Assad's regime had a vast security apparatus in place with members inside each of the religious communities to monitor their activities.

The Assad government was guilty of serious human rights violations, including the summary imprisonment and execution of political opponents. But relations between the various religious groups were generally not violent.

That civil co-existence has ended with the war. In February of this year, the UN Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic reported that, ``The conflict has become increasingly sectarian, with the conduct of the parties becoming significantly more radicalized and militarized.''

This followed on an earlier Commission report stating that, ``Entire communities are at risk of being forced out of the country or of being killed inside the country. With communities believing--not without cause--that they face an existential threat. .....''

We know that early in the civil war, Assad came to view the Christian minority with suspicion, accusing churches of laundering money and goods for opposition forces and forbidding banks from transactions for certain churches.

There is also evidence that the Assad regime encouraged sectarian tensions in order to maintain power--perhaps believing that if the people were afraid of Islamists commandeering a nominally secular state, the people would be more likely to support Assad over the opposition.

In December 2012, Time Magazine reported allegations that the Assad regime was paying individuals to pose as opposition supporters and chant slogans at protests including ``The Christians to Beirut, the Alawites to the grave.''

Our own government has voiced concern about the particular threat posed to Christians in Syria. According to the State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2012, ``The regime continued to frame opposition actions as targeting the Christian population. At the same time, it increased its own targeting of Christian and Alawi anti-regime activists in order to eliminate minority-voices that might counter its narrative of 'Sunni-Sponsored violence'.''

Religious minorities seem to fear the opposition forces. Some prominent opposition groups (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) have a religious basis which has been seen as threatening to Syria's Alawite and Christian minorities.

Smaller opposition factions, such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist al-Nusra Front, take explicitly sectarian positions. There are reports of incidents in which rebel forces engaged in sectarian violence, such as burning Shi'ite mosques.

Christians are perceived by many in the opposition to be Assad loyalists, possibly due to Assad's aggressive recruitment of Christians into the regime militias at the start of the civil war. Other reports indicate that the Christians attempted to remain neutral either out of pacifism or concern about their rights under opposition forces.

Christian neutrality was perceived by some opposition groups as loyalty to the regime. In December 2012, a rebel force believed to be associated with the Muslim Brotherhood released a Youtube video entitled, ``Warning mainly Christian cities in the province of Hama'', and promising attacks if they continue to support and house the pro-Assad forces.

Christian leaders have been targeted, such as the April 2013 kidnapping of Mor Gregiorius Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Orthodox Church and Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church-both men still have not been returned.

The Druze community reports being targeted as well. In March 2013, a Druze leader reported to Christian Solidarity International, ``Our people get stopped at checkpoints and are asked which sect they belong to. Once the militias hear that they are from Swaida [a province where 90% of the population is Druze], our men disappear.''

The al-Nursa Front, a U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization, has been blamed for much of the sectarian rhetoric and violence, but dozens of the opposition groups ascribe to Islamist or Salafist-jihadist ideologies and mingle with the Free Syrian Army--which the U.S. may now be supporting.

Over the last three years, the United States has committed to providing $250 million to various opposition groups in Syria--at least $117 million of which has already been funded, largely to the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. With the chemical weapon red line crossed, the Administration has also agreed to provide ammunition and small arms.

It is not clear whether any of this new lethal assistance will go to the Free Syrian Army and its worrisome opposition groups.

The Administration has also committed to send an additional $300 million in humanitarian aid to ``vulnerable groups'' in and surrounding Syria. It is not clear whether distribution of this aid will be informed by the plight of religious minorities.

I am very concerned that the Administration may not be taking seriously the targeting of religious minorities. Too often, we have heard from this Administration that they have bigger issues to deal with than the vulnerability of religious minorities.

In the last two appropriations cycles, we have directed the Administration to condition aid to Egypt ($1.3 billion dollars) on certification that Egypt is acting to protect the religious freedom of its minorities. The Administration (both Secretaries Clinton and Kerry) refused to do so. Perhaps not surprisingly, the government of Egypt continues to allow attacks on Coptic Christians with impunity.

Money talks. The United States should be using assistance to ensure recipient countries and entities have a plan that is implemented to protect vulnerable religious minorities. This is all the more critical in situations like Syria, where we are providing lethal aid in what has become sectarian tinderbox.

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