Syria: Growing Islamist influence; Christians vulnerable *Bombed Iraqi church reopens, but…
Syria, March 28, 2012: The uprising in Syria is taking on an increasingly Islamist character as al-Qaeda militants infiltrate the country, rebel bands declare “jihad” and the Muslim Brotherhood gains political strength.
The opposition to President Assad comprises disparate groups with varying agendas, but, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamists are now becoming prominent in Syria. Their influence is coming from both inside and outside the country, and while some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are pursuing a political agenda, others, including al-Qaeda, are using terrorist tactics.
US officials have warned that al-Qaeda militants from Iraq are infiltrating Syria; recent suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo have borne the hallmark of the group. Worryingly, Christian neighbourhoods have been targeted in a number of the blasts.
Al-Qaeda supporters are largely Sunni Muslims extremists; Sunnis are the majority group in Syria and central to the opposition. The regime is dominated by the minority Shiite Alawite sect and closely allied with Shiite Iran.
Call for Jihad
Some rebel bands are using the language of jihad and urging others to join them in a holy war. A spokesman for the “god is great” Brigade said on the Internet:
To our fellow revolutionaries, don’t be afraid to declare jihad in the path of god. Seek victory from the one god. God is the greatest champion. Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for god.
Influential Muslim clerics have been calling on Syrians to bring down President Assad. One Syrian Salafi cleric, Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, who is based in the Gulf, regularly delivers provocative speeches broadcast on Saudi TV channels calling for jihad against the “infidel” Assad regime.
And Safwat Hejazi, a prominent Muslim cleric in Egypt, told a rally in Cairo in support of the uprising that it was the duty of every Muslim to kill the Syrian president.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged from the Egyptian revolution as the biggest political winner, is gathering strength in Syria. Their dominance in the Syrian National Council, the body that is establishing itself as the opposition’s political leadership, has provoked several prominent figures to quit.
One of them, Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident, said that the council was “a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood” and that the Islamist group was trying to build allegiances on the ground in Syria. He and others say that the Brotherhood is distributing money and weapons in its bid to win support.
President Assad and his father before him kept a tight leash on the Brotherhood; membership of the group has been punishable by death.
The increasing influence of Islamists in Syria is extremely concerning for the country’s sizeable Christian minority, who, before the revolution, enjoyed considerable freedom and peace. As perceived supporters of the government, they have already been suffering grave abuses at the hands of the opposition.
The Christian community in Homs has been the worst affected. They have been subject to kidnappings, gruesomely brutal murders, and severe damage to their homes. Last week, anti-government forces there occupied the evangelical school and the evangelical home for the elderly. In response the army shelled both buildings. Despite several direct hits on the home, only one person was killed. The anti-government forces fled and the army then moved in to clear the landmines planted at the school by the rebels, as well as advancing on two other Christian neighbourhoods.
One senior Christian leader in Aleppo expressed his fear that as the insurgency becomes increasingly militant, the terrorism may be geared in part “toward the non-partisan, defenceless and easily victimised Christian communities”.
- barnabas team
Bombed Iraqi church reopens. Anti-Christian attacks continue
The church in Kirkuk has now been fully restored after the car bomb attack on 29 January 2006, in which a 13-year-old Christian boy, Fadi Raad Elias, was killed. The teenager had stopped at the church on his way home from school to pray and thank Jesus for good school grades.
Last week, at the official reopening, the building was packed with Christians and church leaders from other parishes for what one believer described as “a moment of real celebration”.
Archbishop Louis Sako paid tribute to the young “martyr”, Fadi, and said that such bloodshed was “an invitation to persevere” despite the “challenges” that the Christian community continues to face. He called for Christians not to leave Iraq, but to stay and witness for Christ.
The attack on the church in 2006 was part of a coordinated series of bombings, timed to coincide with the end of Sunday services. Another church in Kirkuk was targeted, plus two in Baghdad.
The reopening celebration was but a brief respite in the ongoing suffering of Iraq’s Christian community, signalled by two further attacks last week.
On Thursday (22), the body of Salman Dawoud Salman (45) was found riddled with bullets in Mosul. He had been shot nine times at close range. The freelance photographer had been kidnapped four days earlier. Iraqi Christians are often targeted by kidnappers for ransom.
A church in Baghdad was hit last Tuesday (20) in a series of over 20 bomb attacks across the country. Two guards were killed and five people wounded when a bomb exploded near the church. The attacks were carried out by extremists to coincide with the ninth anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.
- barnabas team