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Growing Islamist influence in Syrian uprising; Christians vulnerable

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Syria

The uprising in Syria is taking on an increasingly Islamist character as al-Qaeda militants infiltrate the country, rebel bands declare “jihad” and the Muslim Brotherhood gains political strength.

Damascus_protests_2011-4X3.jpg
The year-long uprising in Syria
is becoming increasingly militant
CC BY 2.0 / syriana2011

The opposition to President Assad comprises disparate groups with varying agendas, but, as happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Islamists are now becoming prominent in Syria. Their influence is coming from both inside and outside the country, and while some, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, are pursuing a political agenda, others, including al-Qaeda, are using terrorist tactics.

US officials have warned that al-Qaeda militants from Iraq are infiltrating Syria; recent suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo have borne the hallmark of the group. Worryingly, Christian neighbourhoods have been targeted in a number of the blasts.  

Al-Qaeda supporters are largely Sunni Muslims extremists; Sunnis are the majority group in Syria and central to the opposition. The regime is dominated by the minority Shiite Alawite sect and closely allied with Shiite Iran.

Call for jihad

Some rebel bands are using the language of jihad and urging others to join them in a holy war. A spokesman for the “god is great” Brigade said on the Internet:

To our fellow revolutionaries, don't be afraid to declare jihad in the path of god. Seek victory from the one god. God is the greatest champion. Instead of fighting for a faction, fight for your nation, and instead of fighting for your nation, fight for god.

Influential Muslim clerics have been calling on Syrians to bring down President Assad. One Syrian Salafi cleric, Sheikh Adnan al-Aroor, who is based in the Gulf, regularly delivers provocative speeches broadcast on Saudi TV channels calling for jihad against the “infidel” Assad regime.    

And Safwat Hejazi, a prominent Muslim cleric in Egypt, told a rally in Cairo in support of the uprising that it was the duty of every Muslim to kill the Syrian president.  

Political sway

Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, which emerged from the Egyptian revolution as the biggest political winner, is gathering strength in Syria. Their dominance in the Syrian National Council, the body that is establishing itself as the opposition’s political leadership, has provoked several prominent figures to quit.

One of them, Kamal Labwani, a veteran secular dissident, said that the council was “a liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood” and that the Islamist group was trying to build allegiances on the ground in Syria. He and others say that the Brotherhood is distributing money and weapons in its bid to win support. 

President Assad and his father before him kept a tight leash on the Brotherhood; membership of the group has been punishable by death. 

Christians vulnerable

The increasing influence of Islamists in Syria is extremely concerning for the country’s sizeable Christian minority, who, before the revolution, enjoyed considerable freedom and peace. As perceived supporters of the government, they have already been suffering grave abuses at the hands of the opposition.

The Christian community in Homs has been the worst affected. They have been subject to kidnappings, gruesomely brutal murders, and severe damage to their homes. Last week, anti-government forces there occupied the evangelical school and the evangelical home for the elderly. In response the army shelled both buildings. Despite several direct hits on the home, only one person was killed. The anti-government forces fled and the army then moved in to clear the landmines planted at the school by the rebels, as well as advancing on two other Christian neighbourhoods.  

One senior Christian leader in Aleppo expressed his fear that as the insurgency becomes increasingly militant, the terrorism may be geared in part “toward the non-partisan, defenceless and easily victimised Christian communities”.

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  • Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we give You thanks on this Easter Day for the living hope that You have given us and all Your people through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (1 Peter 1:3). We pray that the prospect of an enduring inheritance and future salvation will encourage our persecuted brothers and sisters to persevere in their faith, whatever may happen to them. We pray that we too may be sustained by this hope in the sufferings that we experience for the sake of Christ. We ask that the joy and resurrection power of the Lord will give strength and peace to persecuted believers today and every day. Subscribe to the prayer points rss feed 19 hours ago

  • Give thanks for the Christ-like responses of Christian leaders in CAR to the crisis that threatens them and their churches. They have distanced themselves from the anti-balaka militias, saying that these should not be labelled as Christian and that they hold no mandate from the churches. The leaders have also condemned the violence in the country, whatever its origin, and have called on Christians to pursue forgiveness, reconciliation and healing. Churches are hiding, defending and caring for thousands of Muslims endangered by the anti-balaka, and one of CAR’s most senior church leaders has invited the president of the country’s Islamic community to move into his church compound. Pray that this powerful witness to the grace and love of Christ will help to bring peace to the shattered country. Subscribe to the prayer points rss feed Sat, Apr 2014 00:00

  • On this Good Friday, give thanks to God for the death of Christ and for His gift of eternal life. Praise Him too for the example of those Christians who have persevered in their faith at the risk of their lives and who have made the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. Pray that their martyrdom will inspire their suffering brothers and sisters in Christ to endure whatever hardships befall them and will convince their persecutors of the truth and power of the Gospel. Pray too that their bereaved families and churches will not grieve without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Subscribe to the prayer points rss feed Fri, Apr 2014 00:00

  • Cry out to the Lord for Christians in the Central African Republic (CAR) who have been driven from their homes by the violence that has engulfed their country. Attacks by Islamist Séléka militants and retaliation from “anti-balaka” militias has generated a huge humanitarian crisis in which around two million people, many of them Christians, are in need of emergency assistance. Give thanks for the work of Barnabas partners who have been providing food rations to hundreds of displaced believers in the capital, Bangui, and distributing food, medicines, clothing and seeds to thousands in various regions. Pray that the aid will reach those who need it most, and that the Lord will comfort the relatives and friends of the thousands who have been killed in the fighting. Subscribe to the prayer points rss feed Thu, Apr 2014 00:00

  • “Jesus Christ performed tremendous miracles in all our lives through this Shalom Camp.” A pastor spoke of how God had worked through a Barnabas-sponsored weekend Bible camp for persecuted Christians in Sri Lanka. The camp was attended by believers from five different churches that had been the target of threats or attacks by Buddhist or Hindu extremists. The participants heard teaching on the Biblical basis for persecution and took part in group discussions; they came away refreshed and encouraged, and for many the camp was a time of great spiritual renewal. Give thanks to the Lord for the peace He has brought to these persecuted believers, and ask that the weekend will continue to bear much fruit in their lives. Subscribe to the prayer points rss feed Wed, Apr 2014 00:00

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