The Western backed persecution of Syrian Christians in Idlib
A recent report highlights the atrocities committed by Al Qaeda and White Helmets in Idlib province
Abandoned and destroyed church in Deir Ezzor, north-east Syria after Syrian Arab Army liberated the city from ISIS and associated terrorist groups. Photo: Vanessa Beeley
The following is my interview with RT International discussing the recent release of a Human Rights group report on the fate of Syrian Christians in Idlib living under the oppression of Al Qaeda and offshoots including the White Helmets:
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The following are excerpts from the STJ report and my Twitter thread that I published yesterday. At the end you will find links to related articles based on testimonies that I have gathered from on the ground in Syria during the last seven years.
Violent unrest has left Christians in parts of Syria newly under the control of Islamist militants. To protect themselves, they have been forced to accommodate the whims of their new rulers, who have banned their religious practices, confiscated their properties, and even harassed and abused them.
For a decade now, Christians in the Syrian city of Idlib have wished to celebrate and attend the services of Christmas and New Year, as do other Christian communities in other parts of Syria and beyond.
However, since taking over Idlib, Islamist rebels have established a stranglehold over Christian citizens, preventing them from practicing their rituals openly; they limited the services to prayers inside the church hall without ringing bells or raising crosses.
In addition to restricting their religious rights, the Islamist rebels have seized Christians’ properties, kidnapped and even killed them for ransom, desecrated their places of worship, and denied them humanitarian aid.
As such, since the factions’ takeover, Christians have left Idlib in mass toward other Syrian areas or abroad, leaving everything they own behind. Thus, Idlib’s Christian population has dwindled dramatically. Reportedly, before 2010, Idlib was once home to 10,000 Christians distributed in the villages of al-Yacoubiyah, al-Qunaya, al-Jadidah, al-Ghassaniyah, Halluz, and in certain neighborhoods of Jisr al-Shughur and Idlib cities.
Ghassan (a pseudonym), one of the last Christians in Idlib, confirmed that the waves of displacement from Idlib peaked in late 2013 when the Islamic State (IS) extended control over the area. According to Ghassan, by 2014, when the Al-Nusra Front/Jabhat al-Nusra (aka Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) seized the area, only 210 Christians, mostly elderly, remained.
Ghassan pointed out that a large number of displaced Christians left for the city of Latakia, and later some of them migrated to Europe.
Al-Nusra took over the properties of all those displaced and distributed them to foreign fighters, who were in majority Turkistans, but also included Chechens, Algerians, and Tunisians, Ghassan confirmed.
Elias (a pseudonym), a Christian from Idlib residing in Lebanon, confirmed that hardline factions seized the properties of Idlib’s Christians who were forced out of the city.
Elias said the properties seized by Al-Nusra were under the guardianship of the “Office of Christians’ properties”, which recorded the houses and farms of Christians in Idlib and then distributed them to foreign fighters. This was accompanied by the confiscation of the cars of absent Christians and the looting of the furniture of their homes and businesses. The factions only left the houses of the Christian elders who remained in Idlib.
In 2018, HTS claimed that it would reinstate the properties of displaced Christians but nothing came of it. The Christians in Idlib who attempted to restore their farms were forced to sign usufruct contracts. These contracts provided for giving 60% of their crop production to HTS with only 40% remaining to the farmer, even while the farmer remained responsible for the farm’s cultivation and all of its expenses. Upon learning about these unfair terms, all of those who applied to restore their farms refused to sign and withdrew their files. Meanwhile, Christians abroad were not even allowed to demand the restoration of their properties for several pretexts, including residence in Europe and support for the regime.
Throughout 2018, STJ documented the seizure of at least 750 houses belonging to Christian residents of rural Jisr al-Shughur. The houses were seized by HTS, the Guardians of Religion Organization/ Hurras al-Din, and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) under the pretext of their owners’ absence.
Furthermore, between late 2018 and mid-October 2019, STJ documented the seizure of no less than 550 houses and businesses owned by Christians in Idlib by HTS.
Eyewitnesses confirmed to STJ that the armed factions in Idlib leased some of the Christians’ seized properties and settled families of their members in others.
In late 2018, HTS fully appropriated three markets in Idlib city, namely, Khan Kabbad for cereals, Khan Fahdi for selling oil, and Khan Ghannoum. These street markets include warehouses and shops owned by Christian merchants and are of great symbolic importance to Idlib’s people.
Moreover, in 2017, HTS took over the only Christian church in Idlib city, a section of which has been transformed into an educational institute after it was rented to someone. According to a local source, HTS’ rental revenue from the Christian-owned houses in Idlib alone has exceeded 70,000 USD per year.
Impossible Conditions for Restitution
Juliet (a pseudonym), a Christian from Idlib residing in Latakia, told STJ that in 2018 HTS seized her home and agricultural land and she has failed to recover them. Juliet recounted:
“In early 2022, I authorized my cousin to reclaim my properties through a court of the Salvation Government, operating in Idlib. However, an HTS Sharia committee ruled that the faction has the right to use my property, especially since I reside in a regime-held area and work as a teacher for a government school. I tried to sell my home’s furniture, but the faction prevented me and confiscated it. All Idlib’s Christians are treated the same way.”
Juliet continued to say that displaced families in Idlib who leased the seized houses of the absent Christians pay their rents to HTS, noting that the leasing proceedings are all oral not written.
After 2018, the Salvation Government began to change its attitude toward Idlib’s Christians and began allowing them to restore their properties on the condition permanently residing in the area.
Kidnappings and Killings
In addition to seizing their properties, members of hardline factions have harassed and abused Idlib’s Christians. George (a pseudonym), a Christian from Idlib who has fled to Europe, recounted to STJ harrowing stories about the abuses experienced by Christians in Idlib. According to George, members of the hardline factions are a source of terror for Christians, especially since they have become the majority of the population of Idlib’s Christian villages, where the Christians now make up only 1%.
George talked about the undisciplined behavior of the factions’ members saying: “Today it’s very normal for a Turkistan fighter to attack an elderly Christian in the street and to call him an infidel or a worshipper of the cross while insulting and threatening him.”
George also described incidents of kidnapping for ransom. One incident occurred in the middle of 2020, when a Christian family was forced to pay an amount of 3,000 USD to a member of the TIP to stop his threats. Afterward, the family’s children left their village for regime-held areas while their elderly parents remained.
Mary (a pseudonym), a Christian woman residing in Idlib, indicated that the incidents of abuse have recently subsided. Mary explains that this decrease is not due to the increasing mildness of the factions’ behavior but instead is due to the displacement of the vast majority of young men from the area, as only about ten young men now remain to look after their elderly parents.
Mary recalled the 2019 incident of kidnapping and murder of the Arabic language teacher, Suzanne Deir Kreikour, 60, who hails from al-Yacoubiyah town in rural Idlib. Suzanne was kidnapped, raped, and had her gold jewelry looted. She was found naked with clear signs of torture and rape on her body. Days after the incident, the Salvation Government announced the arrest of the perpetrators, whom it claimed confessed to the crime and disposal of the woman’s body. However, Mary added that the Salvation Government did not publicly identify the perpetrators.
Idlib province contains several churches and historical Christian buildings, most of which were devastated fully or partly during the conflict as a result of bombardments by both the Syrian government and rebels. Local sources reported that most of Idlib’s churches are now locked up, out of service, or used by armed factions.
Miray (a pseudonym), spoke with STJ from Canada, where she moved after fleeing Syria, saying that the Greek Orthodox Church in al-Ghassaniyah village was hammered by the regime and Russian airstrikes targeted it after the Army of Conquest/Jaish al-Fatah chose it as a headquarters for them due to it being well fortified. Thereafter, the church was abandoned.
Furthermore, the TIP turned the Greek Orthodox Church of Saint John in al-Jadidah village into a place of rest and cooking.
“Since the hardline factions expropriated our homes, farms, and cars, they will not hesitate to go further to seize the churches, as well as our right to practice our religion freely and openly,” Miray added.
On 19 July, HTS leader, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, visited the villages of al-Qunaya, al-Yacoubiyah, and al-Jadidah in rural Jisr al-Shughur and spoke to their people using moderate language, implying that HTS is open to all religious communities in an attempt to court the Christian community.
On 28 August, the well-known St. Anna Church – which is of great historical significance – in al-Yacoubiyah was reopened after being closed for over ten years. The reopening was celebrated in a publicized ceremony amidst tight security arrangements by HTS forces. Dozens of people attended the ceremony, which was filled with chants and joy.
Analysts see the shift in al-Julani’s attitude as prompted by his awareness of his mistake in deporting Christians and other minorities from the areas of his influence. Al-Julani realized that the presence of minorities in an area prompts the U.S. and other western countries to prevent any possible military operation by the Syrian regime and its Russian and Iranian allies on it, under the pretext of protecting minorities.
There are reports of al-Julani’s assistants making offers to displaced Christian families to return to Idlib in exchange for recovering their property and living freely.
This coincides with a transformation in the way the Salvation Government deals with the population under its rule. The Salvation Government has attempted to shed its hardline image by moderating its behavior; for example, it changed the name of its “Spoils Committee” – responsible for disposing of Christian property – to the “Housing Corporation”.
However, according to testimonies, Idlib’s Christians are still prevented from practicing their religion freely and openly despite al-Julani’s promises of reform. Prayers and holiday celebrations are still confined within the walls of homes and churches with a continued ban of ringing bells and raising crosses.
Continue reading here.
On a recent trip to Latakia, I had the opportunity to interview a former resident of Yakubiyah, a predominantly Syrian Christian (Armenian and Catholic) town located west of Idlib city and around 10km from the Syrian border with Turkey. Aline K (her full name is withheld for her security) was in Lebanon when the armed gangs first entered her hometown in 2012/13 but she decided to return to Yakubiyah to assess the situation.
When Aline returned to her home she found it occupied by a mother and children. Aline asked them to leave but when she came back the next morning, armed militants had taken control of the house and Aline, like so many of her neighbours, was forced to abandon her house. She told me:
“The terrorists looted all the houses, they entered houses and checked what’s inside it, another group came and took everything inside, they took everything they could carry, they emptied houses, they emptied them.”
Aline described a campaign of desecration of the three churches in Yakubiyah, the removal of the ancient stone crosses and artefacts, the familiar eradication of Christian culture, that has been witnessed across Syria, by the so-called “peaceful revolutionaries” sponsored by the West. Meanwhile the West hypocritically claims to be protecting Christians while financing, arming, and promoting their persecutors. Aline and all the women in Yakubiyah were forced to wear the hijab. Aline spent most of her time in hiding, terrified to go out, fearful of reprisals or punishment. Many of the younger inhabitants fled, leaving behind only the elderly and those who did not have the means to escape.
Aline told me that the White Helmets began to appear alongside the armed groups in 2015.
“They established their center in a complex of school and church buildings. When they arrived they were dressed like the terrorists, you couldn’t tell them apart but the White Helmets are a subsidiary of the terrorist groups. Most of the White Helmets were Syrian but the situation was chaotic, we didn’t know who was who, there were many foreigners among them.”
According to Aline, the White Helmets were working with and for the terrorist groups. Aid received from outside was distributed first to the armed groups before meagre supplies were handed out to civilians. Aline did not see the White Helmets performing “humanitarian” activities, they were focused on further looting and the destruction of historic buildings, including the churches.
It is estimated that less than 700,000 Christians remain in Syria, less than 4% (reduced from 10%) of a 19 million population also itself decimated by forced displacement by the invasion of armed mercenaries and terrorist groups that are being funded, armed and promoted by the US Coalition media as “moderate rebels”. Christian communities have been targeted and persecuted mercilessly - from Aleppo to Damascus and beyond.
I was present in areas of Aleppo, historically Christian quarters, when the Nusra Front-dominated armed groups in East and West Aleppo fired hell cannon mortars, explosive bullets and rockets into residential areas killing and maiming civilians, including children. The armed groups gradually encroached into these areas, sniping residents as they advanced and drove people from their homes. According to faith leaders in Aleppo, 75% of Christians from the city have fled outside Syria to escape the threat of genocide by the NATO-backed armed groups. What happened in Aleppo happened throughout Syria and it is believed that 60% of Christians have been displaced from Syria.
Syria’s Christian tapestry comprises Eastern Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Protestants, Anglicans, Assyrian, Chaldean Catholic and these communities have historically been targeted in the region by the Ottoman Empire, most notably in 1840, 1860 and during the Assyrian genocide/Sayfo of 1915. Turkey, a NATO member state, is once again responsible for ongoing attacks on Christian communities particularly in the North West, Idlib, and in the North East also under illegal occupation by the US and their Kurdish separatist contras.
Turkey, under Erdogan, has provided air cover (drones), military and surveillance support to the sectarian extremist groups that are systematically destroying Syrian Christian towns and villages, desecrating churches, stealing artefacts and crucifying, executing and massacring Christian residents of the areas they invade and occupy.
The UK claims that it has provided 2.8 billion in “humanitarian aid” during the ten-year conflict, a conflict it has helped maintain since 2011. In 2019 alone, 150 million was poured into Idlib via the White Helmets and other UK FCDO-incubated so-called NGOs. A Dutch investigative report in September 2018 had already concluded that the White Helmets could not offer sufficient assurances that EU funding was not being siphoned to the armed groups including Al Qaeda. Despite this finding, the UK FCDO continued financing their outreach agents embedded with the aforementioned armed groups.
Since 2011, successive British neocolonialist regimes have professed a desire to “protect the most persecuted religious group in modern times”. According to former UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt - “there is nothing more medieval than to despise someone on the basis of their faith”. Former UK Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, responded to this statement:
“Nothing more medieval? ‘Medieval’ is a good word to describe the ideology of these armed groups as they single out Christian villages on the edges of Idlib for merciless shelling. There must be a special place in Hell for hypocrites like Hunt and Johnson who feign concern for Christians while supporting vile jihadi groups in Syria.”
In fact, Peter Ford and Reverend Andrew Ashdown, who has regularly visited Syria in order to give a voice to Syrian faith leaders, both denounce the British government for its lack of inclusion of Syrian Christian clergy opinions. Ashdown told me:
“The British government and British Church leaders have consistently failed to take note of the views and experiences of religious leaders inside Syria since they mostly directly challenge the position of the British government.”
Ford made the same point – “Not only has the British government ignored Syrian Christians but it has tried to stifle their voice, by for example refusing visas for Syrian bishops to visit Britain just to put their case.”
Where, for example, are Hunt’s or Johnson’s condemnations of the massacre of civilians on a regular basis in the Syrian Christian towns of Al Sqeilbiyyeh and Mhardeh and villages in the surrounding countryside? These towns and villages are in the Syrian government-secured areas bordering Al Qaeda-dominated northern Hama and Idlib.
For eight years, these Syrian towns have been shelled and threatened with ethnic-cleansing invasion by the terrorist gangs marketed as “rebels” in the West and staunchly defended by Hunt and Johnson.
Women in these towns, wives, sisters, daughters of “martyrs” –the young men who have sacrificed their lives in the volunteer National Defence Forces to defend their communities against the sectarian hatred camped on their doorstep– have, themselves, taken up arms and trained as fighters to protect their people. The brutal gangs who would drive them from their homes and their land are, effectively, promoted and financed by the British government. As Ford says:
“It is the height of hypocrisy for the British government to affect concern for Christians when, in its obsession with overthrowing Assad, it has completely ignored the plight of Syrian Christians, who regard Assad as their sole bulwark against persecution. Worst of all, the British government continues to this day to support to the hilt jihadi groups in Syria”
While the UK regime claims it doesn’t directly supply weapons to the euphemistically labeled “Syrian opposition” - British MP Lloyd Russel-Mole begs to differ, accusing the UK FCDO of complicity in small arms and millions of rounds of ammunition mysteriously ending up in the hands of the extremist armed groups in Syria.
Christian military commanders who lead volunteer National Defence Forces that have been instrumental in protecting Christian towns like Sqeilbiyyeh and Mhardeh in northern Hama from US Coalition-backed genocidal armed groups are now being targeted by EU-funded and intelligence-linked media outlets threatening legal action against them and Christian NGOs who have stood in solidarity with their combat against the savagery of sectarian, extremist militias. Their crime? Defending their communities against extinction. They are being described as “war criminals” for doing so. I argue that the real war criminals are those countries enabling and power multiplying the mercenary Islamist forces intent on the destruction of Christianity in Syria and the region.
When the British regime vows to “protect persecuted Christians throughout the world”, they need to justify their support for the violent, armed sectarianism that is sweeping the Middle East. The responsibility for the eradication of regional cultural diversity lies with the British regime & members of the US-led neoconservative cabal. It is worth noting also the British regime bias against Syrian Christian refugees. Their excuse that “only 0.2% of Syrian Christian refugees have relatives in the UK”. Meanwhile members of the Al-Qaeda-linked White Helmets were given instant asylum in the UK after their evacuation (alongside armed group fighters and leaders) out of southern Syria facilitated by Israel. Did they all have relatives in the UK?
In May 2019, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, effectively offered 28 days amnesty for British terrorists fighting in Idlib. The same terrorists who will have ensured the continued persecution of Syrian Christians. In December
In December 2018, Jeremy Hunt commissioned an independent investigation into the rise of “Christophobia” –led by the Bishop of Truro– which was recently published. Peter Ford condemned the report for its failure to criticize the government “for all the support they have given to armed groups in Syria guilty of persecuting Christians”.
His Excellency, Jano Battah, Bishop of the Syriac Catholic Church, has said publicly that “were it not for the SAA and Russia we would have been slaughtered.”
Boris Johnson has “welcomed this review” and claims that he will “stand up for those facing persecution”. Well, why not start by lifting economic sanctions against Syria and ending the promotion and financing of the sectarian terrorist groups and their auxiliaries that are persecuting the Syrian people? As William Wilberforce, MP, said to the House of Commons with reference to the slave trade in 1791 – “you may choose to look the other way, but you can never again say you did not know.”
Mint Press News articles:
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