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Christians a vanishing species in Arab world

This Christmas, like every Christmas, thousands of pilgrims and tourists will travel to the Middle East to celebrate the holiday in the land of the Bible.

In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem will lead a midnight mass, while in Syria — where some Christians still speak dialects of Aramaic, similar to the ancient language Jesus spoke — celebrations are likely to be subdued, curtailed by the dangers of a war that is tearing the country apart.

At a time when the Middle East is aflame with sectarian strife, the observance of the Christian holiday is a sad reminder that the region’s distinctive religious, ethnic and cultural diversity is rapidly disappearing.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Christians made up roughly 20 percent of the Arab world. In certain areas — including southern Egypt, the mountains of Lebanon and southeastern Anatolia — they formed an absolute majority. Today, just 5 percent of the Arab world is Christian, and many of those who remain are leaving, forced out by persecution and war.

Jews, too — once a vital presence in cities like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad — have all but disappeared from the predominantly Muslim parts of the Middle East, relocating to Israel, Europe and North America.

Even in Muslim communities, diversity has been dwindling. In cities like Beirut and Baghdad, mixed neighborhoods have been homogenized, as Sunni and Shiite seek shelter from sectarian attacks and civil war.

The waning of diversity in the Middle East goes back more than a century, to the bouts of ethnic and religious cleansing that took place during the Ottoman Empire, including the murder and displacement of 1.5 million Armenian and Syriac Christians in eastern Anatolia.

After the empire’s collapse in 1918, the rise of Arab nationalism placed Arabic language and culture at the center of political identity, thereby disenfranchising many non-Arab ethnic groups, including Kurds, Jews and Syriacs.

Many Greeks who had been living in Egypt for generations, for example, lost their livelihoods in the 1950s, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser, the great standard-bearer of pan-Arabism, nationalized privately owned businesses and industries. Others were forced to flee the country altogether.

The rise of political Islam following the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War in 1967 dealt another blow to religious minorities. By promoting Islamic revival as a solution to the region’s ills, Islamism led to the marginalization of non-Muslims, including groups that had played outsize roles in the region’s economic, cultural and political life for centuries.

As a result, in places like Egypt, Christians have faced harsh social discrimination and violence, sometimes at the hands of the nominally secular state.

The Arab Spring upheavals have given rise to grave new challenges to cultural and religious diversity in the Middle East. Many of the authoritarian regimes now under threat of collapse cultivated the support of minorities.

This was especially true in Syria, where the Alawite-dominated Ba’ath Party fostered ties to Christians and other small communities by presenting itself as a bulwark of secularism and stability in the face of a supposedly threatening Sunni majority.

Now that Syria’s Sunnis have risen up against their Alawite rulers, Christians’ loyalty to the regime has become a liability, even a danger. In some corners, Christians are regarded as complicit in the government’s brutal crackdown, making them targets for attack.

The rise of the Islamic State over the last year has sparked even more violence against minorities. Powered by a fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology and a boundless appetite for bloodshed, the Islamic State seeks a return to an imagined pre-modern caliphate that subjugates Shiites and treats non-Muslims as second-class citizens.

When the Islamic State captures a city, its fighters give Christians the choice of paying a medieval tax known as the jizya, converting to Islam or being killed. Many simply flee.

The Yazidis of northern Iraq — whose plight on Mount Sinjar was much publicized this past summer — are even less lucky. The Islamic State regards them as pagans and, therefore, undeserving of the protections traditionally accorded to Christians or Jews under Islamic law.

As a result, many Yazidis are murdered or enslaved.

In addition to persecuting minorities, the Islamic State has set about erasing all physical traces of religious diversity. Its forces have demolished Sufi shrines, Shiite mosques, Christian churches and ancient monuments they consider to be remnants of a corrupt and profane past.

Western governments’ protection of ethnic and religious minorities in the region has been a controversial matter for more than a century, and it remains so today. Many Sunnis, for example, accuse America of favoritism: The U.S. intervenes to protect Kurds, Yazidis and Christians in northern Iraq, they say, but does little to stop the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in Syria.

In fact, America’s complicated history of church-state relations at home has made it reluctant to intervene on the part of any religious groups abroad, especially when the population is small.

The end of diversity in the Middle East is a tragedy not only for those who have died, fled, or suffered. The region as a whole will be worse off as a result of their absence.

Minorities have historically served as brokers between the Middle East and the outside world, and if they disappear, the region will lose an important class of cultural, economic, and intellectual leaders.

How a society handles ethnic and religious diversity can tell us a great deal about its capacity to negotiate disagreements and transform pluralism from a liability into an asset.

Yet diversity is all too often considered a source of weakness in the Middle East. It should be considered a strength, and one that is worth protecting.

Christian C. Sahner is the author, most recently, of “Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present.” © 2014 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)

As Christmas approaches, Baghdad Christians lament empty pews

A choir dressed in crimson robes sang ancient hymns below a Christmas star strung with fairy lights at a recent service in the Iraqi capital, the heavy scent of incense hanging in the air. But the season here has a somber edge, and the priest has a serious message for his congregation: Stay.

Just a year ago an Advent service in St. George’s Chaldean Catholic Church would have drawn 300 to 400 worshipers, says the Rev. Miyassir al-Mokhlasee. But now only around 75 people are scattered across its pews.

Ringed by concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, St. George’s has seen its congregation shrink for the past decade. The instability and violence following the U.S. invasion in 2003 have driven many Christians out of the country. The nation’s Christian population has plummeted from more than a million to what community leaders estimate as less than 400,000 today.

Now the conquests by extremists from the Islamic State, known for their cutthroat brutality and intolerance for other religions, have delivered another blow to Christians in their historic heartland.

For the first time in well more than a millennium the plains of Nineveh and its provincial capital of Mosul have been virtually emptied of Christians. Islamic State fighters, who control the northern region, had ordered Christian residents to either convert, pay a tax for keeping their faith or face execution.


Iraqi Christians light candles inside a shrine in the grounds of Mazar Mar Eillia (Mar Elia) Catholic Church, that has now become home to hundreds of Iraqi Christians who were forced to flee their homes as the Islamic State advanced earlier this year, on Dec. 12, 2014 in Erbil, Iraq. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Religious sites such as Mosul’s tomb of Jonah, the ancient figure whose story of being swallowed by a whale is mentioned both in the Christian and Muslim holy books, have been blasted apart. Other minorities such as ethnic Shabbak and the long-persecuted Yazidis have faced similar mass displacement and killings in the once richly diverse region.

The reverberations are being felt further afield in the capital, where families are also packing to leave — hoping to gain a new life overseas.

Ayad Imad, 22, a Catholic resident of the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Zayouna and sales manager for an international cigarette firm, is one of them. This Christmas will be his last in Iraq, he said.

His parents have already sold their house and cars. As soon as his father finishes a round of medical treatment the family will travel to Turkey, where they plan to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee’s asylum program, with the hope of being resettled in North America, Europe or Australia.

They might have to wait a long time before they reach one of those destinations. But Imad doesn’t care. He has spent years lobbying his family to emigrate from Iraq, but his father had not wanted to leave his elderly parents behind.

“At first my father insisted we stay,” he said. “But my father’s had a job, a career. My grandfather is an old man, he’s lived. Now it’s my turn to live my life, and there’s no future here.”

It was the Islamic State offensive this summer — in which the extremists overran Mosul — that finally persuaded Imad’s father that it was time to leave.

Many who pack up and go don’t tell their friends and neighbors, virtually disappearing overnight. In the precarious security environment, families fear that they will become a target for kidnappers in the days before they leave the country, as word spreads that they are cash rich after having sold assets like houses and cars.

“If it stays this way we will shrink to nothing,” said Father Mokhlasee, sinking his head into his hands. “We believe that God wants us here for diversity in the region. Unfortunately, people are afraid of the future, and they are leaving.”

One of Iraq’s most senior Christian religious figures, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, has accused the United States of being “indirectly responsible” for the exodus of one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities, pointing to the chaos caused by the 2003 invasion.

In the sectarian warfare and lawlessness that followed the outbreak of war, Christians were often caught in the crossfire, or targeted for kidnapping. In Imad’s neighborhood, Christian shops have been attacked for selling alcohol, and many have closed down.

In late July, lines formed daily outside the French Embassy in Baghdad after Paris announced it was ready to facilitate asylum for displaced Christians. Iraqi Christian communities in the United States have called on the Obama administration to do the same.

But Younadam Kanna, a prominent Christian parliamentarian, argues that such programs are counterproductive.

“It’s a disaster,” he said. “Violence and discrimination and corruption are kicking us out, then others are pulling us out. The international community is encouraging Christians to leave. This is destroying our community here.”

It is not the first time Father Miyassir’s church has witnessed an exodus. In 2010, when an attack on Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral during evening Mass left 58 dead, the Iraqi capital’s Christian community was shaken. The priest said few of those who left his parish after that incident returned.

He fears his church will not be able to survive the loss of many more parishioners.

“We are becoming fewer in number,” he said in his Advent sermon. “We ask God that we can keep our churches, keep our country. We have a message that people should stay in this country.”

But afterward, as families milled around in the church’s courtyard, he said he feared his message is falling on deaf ears.

“Even my family is leaving,” the priest said. His brother with his wife and four children are planning to move to Jordan after losing their farm in the Nineveh town of Qaraqosh when it was overrun this summer. “He’s looking for a future for his children.”

Satanic Temple, Christian state senator mount dueling displays outside …

  • michigan-holiday-display.jpg

    Dec. 19, 2014: A nativity scene is displayed on the State House grounds in Lansing, Mich. About 50 people sang Christmas carols and prayed to welcome the temporary nativity scene to the Capitol in a scene that likely wouldnt have happened were it not for a group of Satanists from Detroit. The three statues of the infant Jesus Christ and his parents, Mary and Joseph, stand about three feet tall in a small wooden manger were placed just south of the east steps of the Capitol. The display was celebrated by speakers at a brief ceremony as not only a symbol of the season but of a symbol of the right to celebrate that season. (AP)

  • Snaketivity-scene.jpg

    Dec. 21, 2014: A “Snaketivity” scene featuring a snake offering a book called “Revolt of the Angels” as a gift is on display on the grounds of the Capitol in Lansing, Mich. Satanic Temple spokeswoman Jex Blackmore says in a videotaped interview with the Lansing State Journal that her group doesn’t worship Satan but promotes individuality, compassion and views that differ from Christian and conservative beliefs. (AP/The State Journal)

Christians and Satanists put up competing displays Sunday on the Michigan Capitol grounds as Christmas week got underway.

The Detroit chapter of the Satanic Temple set up its “Snaketivity Scene” featuring a snake offering a book called “Revolt of the Angels” as a gift. The snake is wrapped around the Satanic cross on the 3-feet-by-3-feet display. Capitol rules require that displays have to be taken down each night.

In a videotaped interview with the Lansing State Journal, Satanic Temple spokeswoman Jex Blackmore said her group doesn’t worship Satan but does promote individuality, compassion and views that differ from Christian and conservative beliefs.

Blackmore said that the “holiday season is a time of year that is celebrated in many different ways.”

“Having our government endorse one singular viewpoint or method of celebrating the season is problematic when we have a diverse community of people in Michigan,” she said.

Word of the Satanic Temple’s plans led state Sen. Rick Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican, to erect a Nativity scene on Friday featuring baby Jesus, Joseph and Mary. He put it back up Sunday morning.

Jones said he was happy to “represent the light and not the darkness.”

“They could have put theirs up in July or April or sometime. They didn’t need to put it up in the Christmas season,” Jones said. “That’s OK. We’re going to ignore them. I’m not afraid of the snake people. I’m sure that Jesus Christ is not afraid.”

Blackmore told MLive.com her group is “really pleased to be part of what is perhaps a new holiday tradition at the Capitol.”

Martin Diller, a 28-year-old who served two tours in Iraq with the Michigan National Guard and one in Afghanistan, visited the Capitol grounds after attending Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in East Lansing. He said he wanted to see how the constitutional rights issue played itself out.

“A few of my friends in the military, we like to see the First Amendment in use,” Diller said. “We all went overseas, we fought for it, it’s kind of interesting to see it in action.”

 

ISIS reportedly selling Christian artifacts, turning churches into torture chambers

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A woman walks inside a damaged church in Maaloula. The Christian town was attacked last spring by extremist forces. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)

The Islamic State is turning Christian churches in Iraq and Syria into dungeons and torture chambers after stripping them of priceless artifacts to sell on the black market, according to reports.

Ancient relics and even entire murals are being torn from the houses of worship and smuggled out through the same routes previously established for moving oil and weapons in and out of the so-called caliphate, a vast region the jihadist army has claimed as sovereign under Sharia law.

“ISIS has a stated goal to wipe out Christianity,” Jay Sekulow, of the American Center for Law and Justice and the author of “Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore,” told FoxNews.com. “This why they are crucifying Christians — including children — destroying churches and selling artifacts. The fact is, this group will stop at nothing to raise funds for its terrorist mission.”

It’s not clear what items have been stolen, but the terrorist group has sought to destroy religious groups that don’t embrace its twisted and violent interpretation of Islam, and has already blown up several revered Christian sites and monuments.

“In short, ISIS is composed of religiously motivated psychopaths.”

- Jay Sekulow, American Center for Law and Justice

Last July, ISIS militants used sledgehammers to destroy the tomb of Jonah in Mosul. Around the same time, they were destroying Sunni shrines and mosques in the northern province of Ninevah, including the Shia Saad bin Aqeel Husseiniya shrine in the city of Tal Afar and the al-Qubba Husseiniya, as well as Christian churches in Syria. The group follows a strict interpretation of the Sunni faith which is against idolatry of anything other than God. ISIS has also threatened to destroy the holy sight of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, have powerful historical ties to the region, and some of its most treasured sites and relics are in Iraq and Syria, according to experts. Their destruction or dispersal is tragic, said Shaul Gabbay, senior scholar at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

“The Middle East is where the three monotheistic religions begun and anything that can inform us about the history and chronology of the development of religion is of unparalleled significance to the core identity of anyone who is Christian,” Gabbay told FoxNews.com. “This is where Abraham, the forefather of the three monotheistic religions, came from, where Moses led the Hebrews to the Promised Land and where Jesus Christ was born, walked, died and was resurrected.

“Anything physical part that exists from the past including more modern artifacts is of extreme value to Christianity both at the informative and educational level as well as the spiritual/faith level,” he said.

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A woman prays inside a damaged church in Maaloula, a Christian town in Syria. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)

Experts believe Islamic State’s trafficking in religious artifacts is both to make money and to culturally cleanse the region. The Islamic militants have converted churches in Qaraqosh and other Iraqi cities into torture chambers, according to the Sunday Times. One priest from the region, who gave his name as Abu Aasi from Mosul, told the newspaper earlier this month that prisoners were being held in the Bahnam Wa Sara and Al Kiama churches.

“These two churches are being used as prisons and for torture,” he said while in hiding. “Most inside are Christians and they are being forced to convert to Islam. Isis has been breaking all the crosses and statues of Mary.”

Christianity is believed to be practiced by just three percent of the population of Iraq. They lived in relative religious freedom while under Saddam Hussein’s rule, but have faced persecution from Islamic State in the last two years. In particular, the Yazidi, a Kurdish Christian people, have been hounded and murdered by the extremist group, leaving many of them becoming refugees trying to escape the region.

“We know that ISIS considers several groups — including Christians — as ‘infidels without human rights,'” Sekulow said. “ISIS jihadists commit violence against fellow Muslims in violation of Islamic law. They routinely commit war crimes and engage in torture in violation of international law; and they also kill and threaten Christian, Jewish, and other religious communities.”

“In short, ISIS is composed of religiously motivated psychopaths,” he said.

225 Tribal Christians ‘Voluntarily Re-Converted’ to Hinduism in Gujarat …

The Vishwa Hindu Prishad (VHP) claimed that over 200 tribal Christians “voluntarily re-converted” to Hinduism on Saturday in Gujarat’s Valsad district.


conversion



conversion

Taking responsibility for organising the Maha Yagnya – a ritual of the sacred fire – for “purification” of the tribals in Valsad’s Aranai village, Valsad district VHP chief Natu Patel said the people who underwent the “re-conversion” ceremony were not forced into embracing Hinduism.

“As part of the ongoing ‘ghar-wapsi’ programme, VHP today (Saturday) re-converted 225 people from Christian community and took them back into Hindu religion,” Hindustan Times quoted Valsad district VHP chief Natu Patel as saying.

According to another VHP member Ashok Sharma, at least 3,000 people had gathered to participate in the ghar wapsi ceremony organised by the VHP, but only 225 people “re-converted” to Hinduism.

“VHP greeted around 225 people back in their own religion in Valsad. We have not forced them, they came on their own wish,” said Sharma. 

Commenting on the issue on Sunday, Congress leader Rashid Alvi said the Hindu outfits are destroying the country’s image of India by conducting religious conversion in various parts of the country.

“In the world, India had a different image of having people practising various religious beliefs, speaking different languages — based on which the country was built… These actions will only create bad impression about the country,” Alvi told ANI.

“Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and others are trying to destroy the country. If these people have been converted by coercion or inducement then it is a clear violation of law. But then what kind of image of India will be in the world,” he added.

The offshoots of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal have enraged the opposition with their repeated “conversions” in Uttar Pradesh. The events created ruckus in the Parliament for almost a week during the winter session. 

Opposition party MPs have been demanding action against Hindu groups who carried out “conversion” ceremonies in UP and Bihar. They had also insisted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should speak on the issue.

Earlier this month, an RSS offshoot had organised a ceremony for the ghar wapsi (homecoming) of 200 Muslims in Agra. The Hindu group claimed that they “re-converted” them from Islam, which was forced upon them several years ago, even though their ancestors were originally followers of Hinduism.

This was followed by two separate incidents in which at least least 75 people were “re-converted” from Christianity and Islam to Hinduism in UP’s Bahraich district and Bhagalpur in Bihar. 

225 Tribal Christians ‘Voluntarily Re-Converted’ to Hinduism in Gujarat …

The Vishwa Hindu Prishad (VHP) claimed that over 200 tribal Christians “voluntarily re-converted” to Hinduism on Saturday in Gujarat’s Valsad district.


conversion



conversion

Taking responsibility for organising the Maha Yagnya – a ritual of the sacred fire – for “purification” of the tribals in Valsad’s Aranai village, Valsad district VHP chief Natu Patel said the people who underwent the “re-conversion” ceremony were not forced into embracing Hinduism.

“As part of the ongoing ‘ghar-wapsi’ programme, VHP today (Saturday) re-converted 225 people from Christian community and took them back into Hindu religion,” Hindustan Times quoted Valsad district VHP chief Natu Patel as saying.

According to another VHP member Ashok Sharma, at least 3,000 people had gathered to participate in the ghar wapsi ceremony organised by the VHP, but only 225 people “re-converted” to Hinduism.

“VHP greeted around 225 people back in their own religion in Valsad. We have not forced them, they came on their own wish,” said Sharma. 

Commenting on the issue on Sunday, Congress leader Rashid Alvi said the Hindu outfits are destroying the country’s image of India by conducting religious conversion in various parts of the country.

“In the world, India had a different image of having people practising various religious beliefs, speaking different languages — based on which the country was built… These actions will only create bad impression about the country,” Alvi told ANI.

“Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and others are trying to destroy the country. If these people have been converted by coercion or inducement then it is a clear violation of law. But then what kind of image of India will be in the world,” he added.

The offshoots of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Bajrang Dal have enraged the opposition with their repeated “conversions” in Uttar Pradesh. The events created ruckus in the Parliament for almost a week during the winter session. 

Opposition party MPs have been demanding action against Hindu groups who carried out “conversion” ceremonies in UP and Bihar. They had also insisted that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should speak on the issue.

Earlier this month, an RSS offshoot had organised a ceremony for the ghar wapsi (homecoming) of 200 Muslims in Agra. The Hindu group claimed that they “re-converted” them from Islam, which was forced upon them several years ago, even though their ancestors were originally followers of Hinduism.

This was followed by two separate incidents in which at least least 75 people were “re-converted” from Christianity and Islam to Hinduism in UP’s Bahraich district and Bhagalpur in Bihar. 

Douglas Alexander: Labour will fight for persecuted Christians

“In the face of persecution on this scale, neither ignorance nor fear of
offence can be an excuse for standing by on the other side in silence,” Mr
Alexander says.

He said Christians
were under threat from jihadists
fighting with the so-called Islamic
State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) as well as Boko Haram, in Nigeria, whose
fighters have abducted Christian women and forced them into sexual slavery.

Mr Alexander, who is one of the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s closest
colleagues, accused the government of “stepping back” in its efforts to
tackle religious persecution.

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative peer, resigned as minister for faith in the
foreign Office earlier this year over a disagreement on Middle East policy.
Her job has since been downgraded, Mr Alexander said.

If Labour wins next May’s election the role of Minister for Faith will be
strengthened, he said. He offered to support the Coalition now if David
Cameron and Nick Clegg decided to appoint a global faith envoy.

“This is an issue beyond party politics, so if the Government takes this step
sooner, as the Opposition, we will support them,” he said.

Francis Campbell, the former British ambassador to the Vatican who is now Vice
Chancellor of St Mary’s University, London, the country’s largest Catholic
University, welcomed Mr Alexander’s comments.

He praised Lady Warsi and Mr Alexander for highlighting “the growing problem
of religious freedom” and the need “to tackle a political correctness that
can find the issue awkward to confront”.

Douglas Alexander: Labour will fight for persecuted Christians

“In the face of persecution on this scale, neither ignorance nor fear of
offence can be an excuse for standing by on the other side in silence,” Mr
Alexander says.

He said Christians
were under threat from jihadists
fighting with the so-called Islamic
State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) as well as Boko Haram, in Nigeria, whose
fighters have abducted Christian women and forced them into sexual slavery.

Mr Alexander, who is one of the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s closest
colleagues, accused the government of “stepping back” in its efforts to
tackle religious persecution.

Baroness Warsi, the Conservative peer, resigned as minister for faith in the
foreign Office earlier this year over a disagreement on Middle East policy.
Her job has since been downgraded, Mr Alexander said.

If Labour wins next May’s election the role of Minister for Faith will be
strengthened, he said. He offered to support the Coalition now if David
Cameron and Nick Clegg decided to appoint a global faith envoy.

“This is an issue beyond party politics, so if the Government takes this step
sooner, as the Opposition, we will support them,” he said.

Francis Campbell, the former British ambassador to the Vatican who is now Vice
Chancellor of St Mary’s University, London, the country’s largest Catholic
University, welcomed Mr Alexander’s comments.

He praised Lady Warsi and Mr Alexander for highlighting “the growing problem
of religious freedom” and the need “to tackle a political correctness that
can find the issue awkward to confront”.

Remaining Christians in Syria fight to save their land

DERIKE, Syria — Unlit Christmas lights adorn this small but largely isolated Christian town in northeastern Syria. But with only a few hours of electricity every day and most Christians gone the dark lights are a grim reminder of what used to be.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka province over the past three years because of an ongoing civil war, economic pressures and the rise of the Islamic State, which captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria earlier this year.

The Christians had numbered about 2.2 million — 10% of Syria’s population — and lived mainly in the northeast. Many of them also left because of the widespread perception they support the embattled Syrian government. Those remaining vehemently reject the claim.

Residents here estimate up to two-thirds have departed, leaving streets largely abandoned and dozens of shop fronts boarded up. The only sign of life surfaces in the late afternoon, when men gather to play cards and discuss politics at one of the two coffee houses still open.

Dajad Hagopian, 68, a Christian priest, is among those who have refused to leave. He wears his clerical clothing every day even though he only gives a sermon once a week to a handful of people at the Armenian Orthodox Church here.

“God said give us our daily bread, and we get it,” he said. “We may not get as much, but we have fruit, meat and bread, and that’s all we need.

While Derike has been largely spared from the civil war’s violence, it’s not far away. And with few employment opportunities, rising food prices and a lack of electricity and water, remaining residents aren’t optimistic about the future.

“We used to have big Christmas celebrations here and now look at the streets. What is there to celebrate?” lamented a man with a thick, gray mustache who only gave his first name, George, to protect his safety. Still, he’s staying put. “I can’t and won’t leave my home,” he said.

To protect the remaining Christians in the region, the Syriac Union Party created a Christian militia, called Sutoro, in early 2013. Opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the 1,000-member force mans checkpoints and patrols neighborhoods.

“We are protecting what has been ours for hundreds of years. We are the original owners of the land,” said one militia member, who would only give his first name, Aboud, also for safety concerns.

Despite a centuries-long tradition as Eastern Christians, a large chunk of the Syriac Christian community is steadily assimilating into an emerging Kurdish-run autonomous region.

“People don’t consider Christians as part of the Syrian population,” said Ashur Abu Sarkun, general commander of Sutoro. “It’s very important that we stay connected to the land. People don’t want Christians around … We welcome an autonomous region where Christians make decisions with the Kurds and Arabs.”

Sutoro often sends members to the front to fight alongside its military wing, the Syriac Military Council, which is run by Swiss fighter, Johan Cosar, who has Syriac roots.

Cosar, who was a member of the Swiss Army for five years, came to Syria more than two years ago initially with the intention of working as a journalist.

He’s the general commander of the military council working not only to defeat the Islamic State, but to help protect Syriac Christians’ rights. “Our roots are here,” he said on the front at Tel Hamis in northeastern Syria.

“If the war in Syria had finished two years ago, we as people wouldn’t have become anything because we didn’t have any organization, any power, nothing,” he said. “The international community wouldn’t have known anything about the Syriac people. Now everyone calls us Syriac, not only Christian.”

“If we get our rights here as a people, if we have our security here, if we have a really strong force, then I can say ‘OK, my mission is complete.’ But right now, it’s not possible to even think this.”

Remaining Christians in Syria fight to save their land

DERIKE, Syria — Unlit Christmas lights adorn this small but largely isolated Christian town in northeastern Syria. But with only a few hours of electricity every day and most Christians gone the dark lights are a grim reminder of what used to be.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka province over the past three years because of an ongoing civil war, economic pressures and the rise of the Islamic State, which captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria earlier this year.

The Christians had numbered about 2.2 million — 10% of Syria’s population — and lived mainly in the northeast. Many of them also left because of the widespread perception they support the embattled Syrian government. Those remaining vehemently reject the claim.

Residents here estimate up to two-thirds have departed, leaving streets largely abandoned and dozens of shop fronts boarded up. The only sign of life surfaces in the late afternoon, when men gather to play cards and discuss politics at one of the two coffee houses still open.

Dajad Hagopian, 68, a Christian priest, is among those who have refused to leave. He wears his clerical clothing every day even though he only gives a sermon once a week to a handful of people at the Armenian Orthodox Church here.

“God said give us our daily bread, and we get it,” he said. “We may not get as much, but we have fruit, meat and bread, and that’s all we need.

While Derike has been largely spared from the civil war’s violence, it’s not far away. And with few employment opportunities, rising food prices and a lack of electricity and water, remaining residents aren’t optimistic about the future.

“We used to have big Christmas celebrations here and now look at the streets. What is there to celebrate?” lamented a man with a thick, gray mustache who only gave his first name, George, to protect his safety. Still, he’s staying put. “I can’t and won’t leave my home,” he said.

To protect the remaining Christians in the region, the Syriac Union Party created a Christian militia, called Sutoro, in early 2013. Opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, the 1,000-member force mans checkpoints and patrols neighborhoods.

“We are protecting what has been ours for hundreds of years. We are the original owners of the land,” said one militia member, who would only give his first name, Aboud, also for safety concerns.

Despite a centuries-long tradition as Eastern Christians, a large chunk of the Syriac Christian community is steadily assimilating into an emerging Kurdish-run autonomous region.

“People don’t consider Christians as part of the Syrian population,” said Ashur Abu Sarkun, general commander of Sutoro. “It’s very important that we stay connected to the land. People don’t want Christians around … We welcome an autonomous region where Christians make decisions with the Kurds and Arabs.”

Sutoro often sends members to the front to fight alongside its military wing, the Syriac Military Council, which is run by Swiss fighter, Johan Cosar, who has Syriac roots.

Cosar, who was a member of the Swiss Army for five years, came to Syria more than two years ago initially with the intention of working as a journalist.

He’s the general commander of the military council working not only to defeat the Islamic State, but to help protect Syriac Christians’ rights. “Our roots are here,” he said on the front at Tel Hamis in northeastern Syria.

“If the war in Syria had finished two years ago, we as people wouldn’t have become anything because we didn’t have any organization, any power, nothing,” he said. “The international community wouldn’t have known anything about the Syriac people. Now everyone calls us Syriac, not only Christian.”

“If we get our rights here as a people, if we have our security here, if we have a really strong force, then I can say ‘OK, my mission is complete.’ But right now, it’s not possible to even think this.”

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