As the battle to evict Islamic State from Iraq’s second city Mosul dominates world headlines, a new danger is emerging for both Iraqi and Syrian Christians elsewhere in the region.
In Syria, the fighting has now shifted to the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus in the south west of the country. Damascus was where many Iraqi Christians fled when jihadists began a targeted campaign of attacks on churches and Christians in 2004. A year after the Western military intervention, attacks have continued ever since. Damascus is also where many Syrian Christians have fled to, as jihadists have taken over their homes elsewhere in Syria.
Although there has been some fighting on the edge of Damascus for some time, it is now clear that many jihadist groups now see attacking Damascus as their primary focus. A major attack was started last Sunday with a wave of car bombs and suicide attacks. The jihadist groups include some who are known to have carried out atrocities against Christians, including Fatah al Sham (formerly known as the al Qaeda affiliate al Nusra Front) and Ahrar al Sham. These two groups were together responsible for the 2013 attack on the ancient Christian town of Maloula, approximately 35 miles from Damascus. When that town was captured, as Barnabas Aid reported at the time, those from its predominantly Christian population who had not fled were given the choice of conversion to Islam or beheading.
This is not the first time Christians in Damascus have been threatened. In January 2015, Jaysh al Islam, which led the rebel side in the Russian organised peace negotiations at the end of 2016, made an implicit threat to target Christians and other non-Sunni Muslim minorities. At the time, a Middle Eastern media source reported how just before launching its attack, also on a Sunday, its leader demanded that ‘Muslims’ in the capital city stay at home, reflecting that his threats were made against the rest of the sects living in Damascus - particularly Christians living in the Old City of Damascus and Bab Sharqi”.
Disturbingly, some of these groups who have either threatened or actually targeted Christians are still not listed as terrorist organisations by Western governments and as Barnabas Aid has previously reported, there have even been rumours that some may even have been covertly supported by some Western governments. Barnabas Aid have therefore been quietly working behind the scenes seeking to ensure that groups such as Ahrar al Shams and Jaysh al Islam are recognised for what they are – jihadist groups who target Christians and other minorities.