Tuesday, September 18, 2018

RLPB 473. Syria: Christians imperilled as Battle for Idlib looms

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 473 | Wed 19 Sep 2018

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by Elizabeth Kendal

click on map to enlarge
source: DW
Bordering Turkey, Idlib Governorate has been an al-Qaeda stronghold since March 2015 when Idlib city fell to Jaysh el-Fatah, an alliance of some 1500 fighters from al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (the Syrian Taliban) and five other groups including the US-backed Free Syrian Army [see RLPB 307 (29 April 2015)]. The looming battle to liberate Idlib is destined to be the largest battle of the Syrian war. It will be an asymmetric battle, meaning the 'rebels' -- though possessing many sophisticated weapons, including armed drones and high-powered US-made anti-tank weapons -- will be forced to rely on Psychological Operations (operations that target our hearts and minds). To that end it is unsurprising to learn that while the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has opened humanitarian corridors to facilitate the escape from Idlib of Syrian civilians and even Syrian fighters prepared to lay down their weapons, the terrorists (many of whom are foreign transnational jihadists) are preventing people from leaving, eager to retain them as human shields.

As the final showdown looms, the US, the UK and France are preparing to launch military strikes. According to US officials who are establishing the narrative, Assad [is so stupid that he] has approved the use of chlorine gas, the very thing that would trigger coordinated military strikes from the US, UK and France. Actually, the US has stated any escalation of the conflict will trigger massive retaliatory strikes. Of course we have seen all this before [see Religious Liberty Monitoring (RLM), label: Syria]. Frantic talks are underway to see if a major conflagration and humanitarian catastrophe can be averted. On Monday 17 September Russia brokered a deal with the jihadists' patron, Turkey, to establish a 15-20km wide demilitarised jihadist/terrorist-free zone in Idlib. Now all Turkey's President Erdogan needs to do is separate all the 'good' and reasonable 'rebels' from the bad transnational jihadists/ terrorists who must then agree to retreat north. Al-Qaeda's emir in Idlib, Abu Mohammad al-Julani (Golani), has vowed to continue fighting Assad. Refusing to surrender, his group -- now known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham-- is instead promising 'many military surprises'. Mainstream Western media repeatedly lament that the fate of Idlib is in the hands of outsiders. But as Syrians rightly note, Idlib's fate is in the hands of Idlib's 'rebels', jihadists and terrorists; the ball is in their court.

If conflict does escalate, Christians will again be gravely imperilled, just as they were during the liberation of Aleppo [RLPB 382 (12 Nov 2016) and RLPB 373 (31 Aug 2016)] and the liberation of Eastern Ghouta [RLPB 438 (17 Jan 2018)]. For the 'rebels' will target them with retaliatory strikes.

Funeral, Mhardeh, 8 Sept 2018
Greek Orthodox Church of St. George,
see World Watch Monitor
Located in the north of Hama Governorate, less than 10km from the border with Idlib, is Mhardeh, Syria's largest Christian city. Despite being on the front-line of conflict, Mhardeh's Christians have resisted all 'rebel' efforts to drive them out. The city has been repeatedly shelled and besieged; around 100 residents have been killed and more than 150 wounded in the past seven years. Backed by the SAA, the Mhardeh Defence Force comprises some 200 locals -- former tradesmen, teachers, pharmacists among others -- along with some 1000 other volunteers who can be called upon if needed. To keep the city habitable, the local city council has facilitated the prompt rebuilding of homes. It is a tight-knit Christian community where those who have wealth share with those who do not. At 6:30pm on Friday 7 September rebel mortar shells struck busy Mhardeh killing 10 and wounding more than 20, two of whom died later in hospital. Five of the dead were children. One man, who was wounded, lost his mother, wife and three children. On Saturday 8 September Mhardeh's Christians postponed a wedding and, instead, buried their dead.


* intervene with power and grace to ensure Syria remains secular and safe for Christians and other religious minorities; may the transnational jihadists and proxy militias serving fundamentalist Islam and foreign powers be defeated; may foreign powers refrain from illegal actions; may the war soon come to an end and may peace and prosperity return to Syria. 

* redeem all suffering; may the trauma of war serve only to open eyes and soften hearts so that many will receive the saving gospel and transforming wisdom of Jesus Christ. 

* comfort Mhardeh's grieving, traumatised and deeply anxious Christians; may the Lord shield them, encourage them and supply all their needs; may the Lord give 'strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate' (Isaiah 28:5-6 ESV).


Bordering Turkey, Idlib has been an al-Qaeda stronghold since March 2015. The battle to liberate Idlib is destined to be the largest battle of the Syrian war. On 17 September Russia brokered a deal with the jihadist's patron, Turkey, to establish a 15-20 km wide demilitarised terrorist-free zone in Idlib. The Syrian government has opened humanitarian corridors to facilitate the escape of civilians. However, displaced Syrians report that their relatives in Idlib are being held against their will as human shields. Al-Qaeda's emir in Idlib has already vowed to fight, promising surprises. If conflict escalates, the jihadists will target Christians in retaliation. On 7 September 10 people (including five children) were killed when rebel mortars struck Syria's largest Christian city, Mhardeh, in northern Hama. Please pray for Syria and its Christians.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com