The Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad has been destroying Christian churches and places of worship throughout the conflict in the country, a human rights group has reported. The community is often used as bait for targeting opposition groups, alleges the Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which has documented human rights violations by the regime and others since 2011.
The SNHR released a report earlier this month revealing the extent of attacks on Christian places of worship. It identified at least 124 such attacks, 60 per cent of which were conducted by regime forces.
Spokesman Wael Aleji told the Washington Examiner that due to Assad's knowledge that Western nations monitor and are concerned about the situation of Middle Eastern Christians, his forces do not target churches directly. Instead, it ensures that opposition fighters are placed in the buildings to justify the attacks. In other cases in which minority Christian groups have claimed that Assad manipulates and threatens them, he allows members of extremist groups to occupy the churches before launching an operation to liberate them and present himself "as the protector of Christians".
Aleji commented on the Syrian Christian community's common perception that Assad is the best option for its safety and interests. "People think, well, we have no options really, we better stick with him. He's bad, he's brutal, he's corrupt, but he's better than complete chaos and probably Al-Qaeda style government."
Two Syrian Christians who no longer live in the country told the magazine that Assad's friendly face towards the Christian community is merely a propaganda tool to cement his rule and legitimacy among that section of the population as well as Western countries. Ayman Abdel Nour, a co-founder of Syrian Christians for Peace, said that Assad uses Christians "to consolidate his power and to empower himself."
According to George Stifo, who belongs to the Assyrian Democratic Organisation – a political group banned by the regime – Assad and his regime do not "care if you're a Christian or non-Christian or a Shia or Alawite… it's a dictatorship. Anyone who opposes them will feel the wrath, regardless of what faith they belong to."
The revelation counters the widely-held view that the Assad regime is the protector of Syria's Christian community and other religious groups, and is the sole alternative to being subjected to the rule of a "jihadist" government under extremist groups such as Daesh. The news is particularly significant in the face of increasing concerns over the years by Western nations regarding the treatment of Christians in the Middle East, especially in the Levant, Syria and Iraq.
Bishop Nicholas James Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton told Catholic News Agency that "the situation is very convoluted" in Syria and urged caution in interpreting the report's findings.
His travels, he explained, leave him in "doubt very much if the regime of the Assad regime is responsible for the bombing of any churches and religious sites."
Christians in Syria have long been perceived to be allied with the regime and with Assad's own Alawite community, as well as many other ethno-religious groups and minorities within the country. They have also been particularly united against the alleged threat of Syria's Sunni majority, which many believe to be one of the primary victims of the regime and the conflict.