Syria: 'An endless Calvary'

Syria: 'An endless Calvary'

A statue of the Virgin Mary overlooked the village of Maaloula, north of Damascus, Syria. (Alexander Kots/Komsomolskaya Pravda via AP)

Not so long ago, a 53-year-old engineer named George Shenekji Chankji was, by Syrian standards, living the dream. He was part of a thriving Christian middle class in Syria, where Christians traditionally counted for about 10 percent of the national population and tended to be over-represented among professional elites. Along with

Not so long ago, a 53-year-old engineer named George Shenekji Chankji was, by Syrian standards, living the dream.

He was part of a thriving Christian middle class in Syria, where Christians traditionally counted for about 10 percent of the national population and tended to be over-represented among professional elites.

Along with his wife, Rima, and their son Fadi, Chankji owned a large home in Aleppo, an apartment in the capital city of Damascus, and a country home in a village called Kafrun. The family’s nest egg was supplemented by income from a chain of three thriving department stores owned by Rima’s relatives.

On Nov. 9, 2014, however, Chankji and his family were forced to flee Aleppo during an Islamic State assault on the city, abandoning virtually all their property.

As they attempted to escape the fighting by car, they ran into a checkpoint operated by militants of Al Nusura, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, where they were robbed of the remaining cash they were carrying and forced to abandon their vehicle.

Chankji counts them lucky they weren’t killed, explaining that a young bearded soldier decided to let the family go after holding them at gunpoint for a half-hour, saying, “I’ll be merciful with you because Allah is merciful.”

After several days, the family made it into Lebanon, where they temporarily took up quarters in a refugee camp until they received permission to immigrate to Turin, Italy. Today they live largely off charitable support from a parish run by the Salesian religious order.

Chankji is a descendant of Armenian Christians who survived the Turkish genocide a century ago, and in August, he told the Italian newsmagazine Famiglia Cristiana that he grew up listening to his grandparents tell stories about the horrors they endured.

Yet nothing, he says, compares with the carnage he and his family witnessed before fleeing Syria.

“It’s an endless Calvary,” Chankji said, referring to the biblical hillside where Jesus was crucified. “The problem for me and so many other Syrian Christians is, what future will our children have?”

Since its bloody civil war broke out in March 2011, Syria has run neck-and-neck with Iraq in terms of the agony of its Christian population.

Open Doors, a Protestant watchdog group on anti-Christian persecution, reported that 1,213 Syrian Christians were killed in 2013 for reasons linked to their faith.

Beyond the ever-present threat of death, Syrian Christians are being squeezed out in other ways.

In September 2013, Islamic religious leaders in Douma, a Damascus suburb, issued a fatwa permitting Muslims to seize the homes and other property of local Christians. As a result, virtually all the Christians in the area fled. In other parts of Syria controlled by the Islamic State, Christians have been given three options: convert to Islam, pay a second-class citizenship tax, or leave permanently.

Overall, Church leaders estimate that of a pre-war Christian population in Syria of 1.5 million to 1.75 million, at least 600,000 had either fled the country or been driven into internal exile by the end of 2014.

Kidnapping is another plague that has befallen Syria’s Christian population. It’s become a cottage industry among the country’s armed factions, with a website called Ora Pro Siria, or Pray for Syria, operated by Italian missionaries, reporting in February 2013 that the going price for a kidnapped priest at that time was in the neighborhood of $200,000.

Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Greek Melkite archbishop of Aleppo, is among the Christian pastors in Syria today on the front lines of the ISIS threat. (The Greek Melkites, concentrated in Syria and Lebanon, are one of 23 Eastern churches that are part of the Catholic Church.)

Jeanbart told the Globe that he spent Easter 2015 digging out from under the rubble of a bomb that exploded in a Christian quarter of Aleppo, killing 15 people. Among the casualties were four of his own Greek Melkite flock, a father and mother and their two children, aged 10 and 12.

“Now we have a problem with burials, because the cemeteries are surrounded by snipers, and we have to bury our dead somewhere else,” he said.

In general, Jeanbart is pessimistic about the future.

“We are in grave danger; we may disappear soon,” he said, because any hope of moderate opposition in Syria has been hijacked by “radical Muslim factions calling for jihad and exclusion, a kind of apartheid for all non-Muslims.”

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