By Gary G. Yerkey
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, said March 10 that his nation has begun to prepare for a possible influx of Christian refugees from Syria. Oren said that the Christian community in Syria, estimated to be 10 percent of the country’s population of about 23 million, continues to be the most vulnerable to the two-year-old civil war.
“We’re bracing for the possibility of a large-scale influx of refugees to Israel, particularly Christians,” Oren said. “We’re watching that very, very closely.”
A report published last month by Nuri Kino, a Swedish journalist of Assyrian background, said that the civil war in Syria has affected every civilian, regardless of ethnicity or religion. But he said the war has been especially horrifying for the country’s Christian minority, which has no militia.
Kino said he compiled the report, “Between the Barbed Wire,” based on extensive interviews with nearly 100 Christian refugees now living in Turkey and Lebanon. He said that some of them would like to return to Syria when the situation calms down, but that many have plans to move to Europe, if possible.
The 40-page report said the refugees believe they were being targeted because of their Christian faith, particularly by rebels seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad. It said that criminals also assaulted them with impunity.
Oren, who spoke at the annual meeting of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., said the Christian population in Syria has also been vulnerable because it is so widely dispersed. “They have no geographical center,” he said, confirming for the first time that Israel — in addition to Turkey and Lebanon — is concerned about an influx of Christians seeking refuge from the bloodshed in Syria.
Non-governmental organizations that monitor the situation, such as International Christian Concern, have said that Christians in Syria have more reason to fear anti-government forces than the government since the Assad regime has been relatively tolerant toward minorities.
Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation and a former State Department official, has said that, while Assad has been no saint, he has been a “gatekeeper holding back the floodwaters of sectarian retribution and religious persecution by Sunni militants. For minorities, life after Assad looks gloomier and the political opposition is neither strong nor credible enough to make any genuine reassurances to them.”
Oren said the situation in Syria will be among the issues discussed during President Obama’s visit to Israel later this month. He said the two-day visit — Obama’s first since taking office as president in 2009 — will also focus on a wide range of other issues of mutual interest, including the situation in Iran and the recent violence in Egypt, as well as the dormant Middle East peace process.
“The purpose of the trip,” he said, “is to send a message … to the people of Israel and the rest of the world about the vibrant and deep relationship between [the United States and Israel]. And it comes at a time of profound instability throughout the region.”
Image of Ambassador Oren by Anne Mandlebaum, via Wikipedia