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It's A Dangerous Time For Christians In Northeastern Syria

Feb 12, 2020
Originally published on February 12, 2020 8:36 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We begin this next story by visiting a church. It is a church in a war zone. It is a Christian church in an overwhelmingly Muslim region. It is in far northeastern Syria, part of the region that has been controlled by ethnic Kurds, where Kurds have been fighting against ISIS and where Turkey recently invaded. What does all of that mean for a Christian community? NPR's Jane Arraf has this report from the city of Qamishli.

UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing in Arabic and Armenian).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: A small choir at St Joseph's Church sings in Arabic and Armenian. Their voices carry through the white painted church, past the wooden pews bathed in colored light from the stained glass windows. It's Sunday mass, but the church in Qamishli is only a third full - the empty pews a reminder of families who've emigrated, fleeing a multitude of dangers in Syria's nine-year-long war. In the latest - the parish priest here, Hovsep Bedoyan, and his father were killed by ISIS in November on the road to Deir ez-Zor.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: More than half of the roughly 5,000 Armenian Catholics in Qamishli have left. The killings left the close-knit community here reeling.

ANTONIO ELKAS: It was so terrible to us. It was not just only shocked. It was like before the day he pass away, we were together and we were talking like our plans to Christmas and what we will do to the church.

ARRAF: That's Antonio Elkas, a college student who sings in the choir. We're speaking as he and other parishioners file into a small church hall for coffee.

ANTRANIG AVAZYAN: Allez-y. Welcome.

ARRAF: The senior priest, Monsignor Antranig Avazyan, tells us it's a dangerous time for Christians here.

AVAZYAN: It is very, very big time for us - big tragedy. (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He switches to Arabic, one of the four other languages he speaks, and he explains that it's too sensitive to talk about the killing of Father Hovsep. But he wants us to know he blames the United States. President Trump said after the invasion that Turkey had committed to protecting religious minorities, including Christians. Father Antranig says the U.S. claims to protect Christians, but it cares more about Turkey.

AVAZYAN: (Through interpreter) America will not give up on Turkey for the sake of the Kurds or the Christians or the Syriac or the Armenians. Turkey is an ally of the U.S.

ARRAF: Some of the Turkish-backed mercenaries fighting in Syria have links to al-Qaida, which considers Christians and many others infidels. But that's not the only reason Armenian Christians here fear Turkey. The community here are descendants of survivors of the Ottoman genocide of Armenians a century ago. More than a million were estimated killed, tens of thousands of them on a death march through the Syrian desert. Some of their bones are still there, close to the surface in the desert, making it sacred ground, the monsignor says.

AVAZYAN: With your finger, after two centimeters - Armenian, Armenian, Armenian bones.

ARRAF: And that's why, he says, despite the dangers, many Armenian Christians will never leave.

AVAZYAN: For us - it's impossible for us not staying in Syria. Our roots is here. For us, that is a holy, holy land.

ARRAF: At an Armenian Orthodox church across town, bones of some of the victims of the genocide lie in a glass case, decorated with plastic roses.

HADOUR ATAMIEN: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Hadour Atamien, a church caretaker, says the bones are there so people won't forget what happened. And for those who've left, there are the songs. He sings one.

ATAMIEN: (Singing in non-English language).

ARRAF: It's a song about not forgetting the victims or the land where they died. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Qamishli in northeastern Syria.

ATAMIEN: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.