The plight of minorities in Syria
An international development professional who worked for over 20 years in the Middle East analyses the conflict that has created one of the largest humanitarian crisis in modern history and engulfed an ancient and diverse society whose minority groups are now under threat.
When Libya, Tunisia and Egypt staged uprisings to overthrow dictatorial leaders, the fever caught on in Syria as well. In March 2011, Syrian citizens began a series of peaceful protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime to demand more economic prosperity, political freedom and civil liberties. The government responded with extreme violence, killing civilians and sparking a nationwide uprising and eventually a full-fledged civil war that slowly became radicalised along sectarian lines.
Initially the conflict was divided into two main groups: the ruling minority Alawite sect (11% of the population) – a Shiite Muslim offshoot from which President al-Assad and his most senior political and military allies belong, and the country’s Sunni Muslim majority (74% of the population), mostly aligned with the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA). Over time, the conflict has drawn in other ethnic and religious minorities, including Armenians, the ancient Christian communities, Druze, Palestinians, Kurds and Turkmens (15% of the population). Traditionally, the minority groups supported the al-Assad regime as it was seen as a secular party that protected and granted rights to minority groups, leading many Syrians to the conclusion that al-Assad was the best available option.
Nonetheless members of these minorities supported the calls for reform and more political freedoms at the start of the uprising. As the conflict intensified and opposition ranks became more and more dominated by radicalised members of Syria’s Sunni majority and jihadist fighters with links to Al Qaeda, the minority groups, feeling increasingly threatened and under attack, have found themselves stuck in the middle, unsure which side poses the greatest threat. While outraged by the regime’s brutal efforts to quash the opposition, many find equally frightening the Islamist rhetoric of many rebels, and their heavy reliance on extremist fighters.
The Syrian crisis is now two and a half years old, and the damage of the conflict seems only to be worsening. The death toll now stands at an estimated 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million. Around 40,146 civilians have been killed, including 4,000 women and 5,800 children. A further 2.1 million refugees (the majority being women and children) have fled for their lives over the borders into neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, and still more are struggling to survive inside Syria. The local communities in which the refugees stay in neighbouring countries are increasingly overwhelmed by the huge influx of refugees with resulting rising food prices, overburdened medical services and little opportunity of employment. Refugees have also caused tensions to rise in these neighbouring countries, and violence is starting to overflow across the Syrian border. Hence the Syrian conflict has been referred to by many as one of the largest humanitarian crises in modern history.
Although the violence has been destructive across Syria, the minority groups are struggling more than most, especially the Christians who make up about 10 per cent of Syria’s 23 million population. Christians have been targeted by the Islamic extremists because of their faith, by the more secular opposition movements who say they are supporting Assad, and by the regime for not being loyal enough. Church leaders in Syria are expressing concern at the huge numbers of Christians fleeing Syria and are comparing it to Iraq a decade ago, when nearly 700,000 Christians left, out of a total Christian population of 1.4 million, changing the character of the region forever.
Christians are not the only minority group to be targeted. In August 2013, some 30,000 Syrian Kurds fled into Iraq’s Kurdistan region because they were being killed by jihadists targeting the minority. As one Syrian church leader said recently ‘If we allow the Christians and other minorities to leave the country, then the richly diverse social and religious nature of the society will change and the region will be the poorer for its loss of diversity.’
The church’s response
As a result of the deteriorating situation in Syria, Pope Francis has condemned the ongoing violence and called for peace, holding a global day of prayer and fasting on the 7th September 2013. Accordingly, Scotland’s Catholic Bishops wrote to every parish in the country asking for a special collection to be taken up in support of the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund’s Syrian appeal. SCIAF is the official overseas agency of the Catholic Church in Scotland, dedicated to ending poverty and working alongside the world’s poorest people, whatever their faith. Together with responses from individuals across the country, over £400,000 has been raised so far in support of the appeal.
As a result of the generosity of Scottish people, SCIAF has been able to provide life-saving support and resources where they are needed most in Lebanon and Jordan. SCIAF is helping thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and has recently scaled up its response by sending a further £250,000 in aid to support the most vulnerable. The charity’s Syrian Refugee Emergency Appeal is helping to provide food, hygiene kits, clothes, blankets, fuel, stoves, temporary shelters, school fees, uniforms and books for refugee children, and healthcare and trauma counselling for the sick and injured. SCIAF is also helping poor and vulnerable Lebanese and Jordanians who are also coming under pressure with rising food prices, reduced access to healthcare and high unemployment. SCIAF’s partners on the ground, Caritas Jordan and Caritas Lebanon, are co-ordinating their emergency response in close co-operation with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees)and other major humanitarian organisations to avoid duplication of effort and to ensure the aid has the greatest possible impact.
The war in Syria shows no signs of ending. The numbers of people caught up in this crisis continues to grow. More and more people are fleeing over the borders into neighbouring countries and find themselves with nothing and in urgent need of assistance. We hope the people of Scotland will continue to reach out to the Syrian people and those in neighbouring countries, keeping them in our thoughts and prayers.
To make a donation to SCIAF’s Syrian Refugee Emergency Appeal please visit www.sciaf.org.uk or call 0141 354 5555.
Lorraine Currie is a Scot who has been the Head of International Programmes at SCIAF since May 2010. She worked for over 20 years in the field of international development in the Middle East, including Syria, with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, non governmental organisations (NGOs) and grassroots church-based organisations. She was responsible for designing and managing emergency and long term development programmes for refugees and poor and marginalised groups.