By Taniel Koushakjian

This week, the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C. held a panel discussion entitled “Marked for Destruction: the Plight of Syria’s Christians with Syrian Christian Leaders.” The panel featured Reverend Adib Awad, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, H.E. Bishop Elias Toumeh, The Orthodox Bishop of Pyrgou-Syria, Reverend Dr. Riad Jarjour, Presbyterian clergyman from Homs, Syria and the former General Secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches (1994-2003), H.E. Bishop Dionysius Jean Kawak, Metropolitan of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and His Grace Bishop Armash Nalbandian, Primate of the Armenian Church of Damascus. The discussion was co-hosted by the Westminister Institute and Barnabas Aid Fund, who was represented by International Director Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo. Bishop Julian Dobbs of the Anglican Church of North America made introductory remarks, while Becky Norton Dunlop, Heritage Vice President of External Relations, opened and closed the program.

To explain the current situation in Syria, the panelists provided a historical context of centuries-long persecution and massacres of Christians in the greater Middle East. Speaking first was Rev. Dr. Riad Jarjour, who talked at length about the “indigenous Christians” of Syria. He expressed the uncomfortable feeling registered among Christians, especially since Ottoman times, directly citing “what happened to the Armenians.” Jarjour went on to state that Christians in Syria today do not feel safe “in the land they were born.” He then reflected on current events, highlighting the kidnapping of priests and nuns, the confiscation of churches, and the brutal beheading of Armenians all by Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra Front and other extremist groups. “At least 80 people have been used as human shields in Homs,” said Jarjour, “they are not allowed to leave the city.” In a plea to all Syrians, Jarjour warned of the consequences of a “Syria without Christians,” sharing his view that not only will the Christian community of Syria loose, but that Syria’s Muslims will also loose a very significant segment of their society.

Bishop Dionysius Jean reflected on specific episodes of Christian persecution in the Ottoman Empire. He mentioned the massacres of Christian Armenians “since 1860 and 1895,” the latter a direct reference to the Hamidian Massacres that served as a precursor to the Armenian Genocide.

Unafraid to share some of the most alarming reports of recent Islamic extremism was Rev. Abid Awad. He called attention to “terrorists” in Syria “from 83 countries” that he said were “armed, supported and funded by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.” Rev. Awad talked about the recent beheading of Armenians who reportedly were killed when they refused to convert to Islam. According to Awad, their heads were sent to adjacent Christian villages, in order to instill fear among Christian populations in Syria. “The priests buried the bodies without their heads,” he exclaimed.

In an expression of solidarity, with all the various religious groups in Syria, Bishop Nalbandian warned against heeding the calls of Islamaphobes. Nalbandian explained the uniqueness of the Armenian situation. “After the Armenian Genocide, Syrian Muslims accepted us, welcomed us,” Nalbandian said. Nalbandian differentiated between secular Syrian Muslims who want peace and the foreign extremists who are kidnapping and killing Christians.

Addressing the panel from the audience, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian, Diocesan Legate of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) stated, “Three close allies of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, are supporting terrorist groups in Syria.” “What can America do to hold countries like Turkey accountable for supporting extremists in Syria,” he asked. The dignitaries tried to avoid delving into politics.

There are a number of steps that the U.S. can take, such as a drastic reduction and/or full cessation in the transfer or sale of U.S. military aid and equipment to such countries. It’s not about dismissing the U.S.-Turkey relationship; it’s about putting the relationship on an honest footing – be it Turkey’s inexplicable campaign to deny the Armenian Genocide or its blatant support of Islamic extremists whose efforts run counter to U.S. values. Friends don’t let friends support terrorists. It’s time U.S. taxpayers stopped footing the bill, too.

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