Aleppo, Syria Collapses into Chaos
May 19, 2016
An infant is evacuated after an air strike in a rebel-held area of Al-Fardous District, Aleppo, on April 29. (Reuters/Abdairhman Ismail/Newscom)
A 10-week-old ceasefire in Syria collapsed last month with an upsurge in fighting in Aleppo, depriving many civilians of their livelihood and others of their lives. Indigenous Christian workers are choosing to remain to help the survivors.
A series of short-term truces in Aleppo in the past few weeks has helped stem the bloodshed, but fighting between rebels, government forces and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS) has continued.
"The situation in Aleppo has taken a turn for the worse since the 24th of April," the leader of a ministry based in the area said. "Dozens of mortar bombs have damaged or completely destroyed buildings."
The United States, which supports the rebels, and Russia, which backs the government of President Bashar al-Assad, are trying to revive February's partial ceasefire agreement, which did not include ISIS or Al Qaeda's Al-Nusra Front. The agreement allowed peace talks to begin in Geneva, which proceeded without success until the uptick in fighting in Aleppo helped bring them to a halt.
The U.N. Security Council last week decried attacks against Syrian civilians, warning that shelling of hospitals, houses and other civilian targets could be regarded as war crimes. The director of the indigenous ministry, which provides food parcels and cash for school tuition, rent and medical costs, said hundreds of families have been forced to leave their homes in search of refuge in safer areas of the city.
"The opposition intensified its offensive in areas of Aleppo held by regime forces," the ministry director said. "In reality, militants are shelling civilian neighborhoods. It is pretty clear. All targets which have been subject to shelling are civilian neighborhoods."
Civilians place victim of shelling on emergency transport in Aleppo, Syria.
Attempted ceasefires and truces have failed in part because Islamic extremist militants are sometimes mixed with "moderate" rebel groups, Russian officials say. One military expert estimated there are more than 14,000 rebel militants in and around the city, with "moderate" groups like the Free Syrian Army sometimes indistinguishable from extremist groups like the Al-Nusra Front.
Besides toppling Assad, the extremist groups have the goal of setting up their own Islamist authorities – with ISIS and Al-Nusra battling each other in the same arena – and targeting Christians in the process. The U.S. government in March formally recognized ISIS's actions as genocide against Christians, Yazidis and Shiites.
"One element of genocide is the intent to destroy an ethnic or religious group, in whole or in part," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in announcing the designation on March 17. "The fact is that Daesh [ISIS] kills Christians because they are Christians; Yazidis because they are Yazidis; Shia because they are Shia ... Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology."
When fighting began in 2011, the Christian population in Syria of 2.2 million was less than 10 percent of the country's total; it is now estimated that Christians make up less than 5 percent of the remaining population. Christian leaders have been kidnapped and killed, Christmas celebrations have succumbed to suicide bombers and sacred sites haven been destroyed.
"Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions," Kerry said.
The State Department designation does not legally obligate the U.S. administration to take action against ISIS, though it lends support to doing so. Indigenous ministry leaders in the Middle East said it should spur both U.S. and Middle Eastern Christians to action.
"God sees ISIS as he saw Saul of Tarsus, as a persecutor and a killer of His children simply because of their faith," said one ministry leader in the region. "All Christians should support any effort to make the genocide declaration effective by going through their governments and parliaments to jointly put an end to ISIS. It will give reason for moderate Muslims and Islamic countries to join efforts against ISIS."
Another native ministry leader said that most Muslims in conflict areas of Syria and Iraq, especially Shiites, would agree that ISIS is guilty of genocide. Many Sunni Muslims in the Middle East farther from the fighting, however, see them as Mujahideen (jihadist fighters) spreading the true Islam, he said.
"A large part of affected Christians are joining the [Kurdish] Peshmerga army hoping to regain their areas," he said. "Christians in the world today face a big responsibility to save what remains of Christians in the Middle East. They should urge their leaders and their countries to be involved to preserve the Christian heritage in the Middle East, the source of Christianity where it began, and also step up efforts to work to spread the message of the gospel in those areas."
Though unrecognized as such, genocide against Christians is also taking place in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, he added.
Like the displaced in Syria and Iraq, Syrian and Iraqi refugees fleeing to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan are lacking food, medical assistance and shelter. Indigenous ministries do what they can in the face of overwhelming needs.
"We want to be able to provide more food, medical costs, education, etc. for refugees and single moms/single-parents," said the leader of an organization based in Lebanon that is reaching refugees there as well as displaced people within Syria. "We would love to see that, and it's a huge need, but we just don't have the resources. The number of single moms we have at the moment is huge. I am being begged to help take this on, but I simply can't because we don't have the resources."
While meeting physical needs, the ministry is developing the faith of former Muslims who have come to Christ through its gospel audio recordings and other means.
"We're trying to mentor those who have converted, and now we're starting with the second-generation of believers who have converted under those we mentored," he said. "Please know how much we're thankful for you. We value you and being able to partner with Christian Aid a lot."
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