NICK EICHER, HOST: Up next on The World and Everything In It: the Syrian war’s Christian survivors.
Twenty thousand Christians used to live in Syria’s Khabur River Valley. But four years ago, ISIS militants overran the valley’s 30 villages. They demolished homes and infrastructure. They also destroyed numerous churches. Thousands of Assyrian Christians fled.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Now, church leaders estimate just 800 Christians remain. Money is available to begin rebuilding, but security is elusive. And without some assurance of safety, most families are hesitant to return.
WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz recently visited the Khabur River Valley and joins us now to talk about what she saw.
Good morning, Mindy.
MINDY BELZ, SENIOR EDITOR: Good morning, Mary.
REICHARD: Let’s start with the villages you visited. What is life like there now, and compare it to what it was like before ISIS took control?
BELZ: Well, as you mentioned, first of all, there’s hardly anyone there. I mean, there are about 30 villages. Population has just shriveled to just a fraction of what it was before. I went into one village that once had 1,200 people. It now has 4 people. This is an area that had an interdependent economy. Very agricultural, very beautiful, fertile river valley. The Khabur River is the largest tributary of the Euphrates. It’s where some of the earliest wheat in the world was grown. You had these villages producing livestock while some people were growing grain and crops to feed the livestock. That sort of thing. That interdependence has been lost.
And what happened was in 2015, ISIS took over the area. It threatened these villages for a long time before it did that. But when it moved in, it did so overnight, as we’ve seen in so many other places. Kidnapped 250 Christians. Something we just didn’t hear very much about at the time or since. Took a year and a half to release them. And the result was that these villages became empty. This life became lost for these ancient Assyrian Christians.
REICHARD: A lot of the Christians there fled ISIS violence. Where did they go and what will it take to persuade them to come back?
BELZ: They fled in every direction. Scattered, as someone said to me. And some went to nearby towns and villages. Some went to live with family. A number of them have ended up, because the situation, the fighting that we’ve seen in Syria and in Iraq has gone on for so long, a number of them have ended up immigrating as refugees to Sweden, to Australia, even to the United States.
To come back, I think it will take more than just rebuilding the villages. One of the church leaders there said to me to create confidence for people to return is much harder. And it will take real protections for them, not simply military security, although that would be the first step, but they need protections in their laws. They need constitutional protection that would grant them status to feel comfortable, I think, to live there again.
REICHARD: How is the U-S decision to pull at least some troops out of Syria playing into all this?
BELZ: It gets to this issue of confidence, and I think this is something that’s so hard for us to understand here in this country. But the church and the country itself is very divided. You have a number of people who believe and have confidence that President Bashar Assad can restore order, can restore that kind of confidence and security for people to return to their villages. But many other people say Assad is a war criminal. Assad was dropping bombs on us. Assad did not protect us when ISIS came into our villages. And they want, at the end of this long war, they want a transitional government. They want an opportunity to start something very new. And so without those issues being resolved, we aren’t going to see people returning. And I fear that we’re going to see something very precious lost. Because these are some of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
REICHARD: Many of these Christian areas now fall under the control of a Kurdish-led political and military coalition. Tell us about that.
BELZ: That’s right. What we’ve seen come together over the last couple of years with support from the Trump administration, the United States, and our allies is a self-administration zone in the northeast of the country. It is patrolled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. These are a combination, a very rare thing in this part of the world, of Kurdish forces, Arab forces, and even a couple of Christian militias. They’re working together to defeat ISIS, very much in keeping with the U.S. goals in Syria. And they are pushing for the kind of transitional government I was talking about where there would be a new constitution and a call for new elections. And there would be something that might look like, at the end of this long war, even a peaceful transition of power. This is what they envision: they want democracy, which Syria has not had in your lifetime or mine, and they want equal rights for groups like Kurds and some of these Arab minorities and the Christians, of course.
REICHARD: You know, we keep hearing that ISIS is defeated, but Christians in the area still face many threats. Can you talk about some of those?
BELZ:Well, we are reaching a historic moment where we’re seeing, perhaps, the last battle, but it’s for territory that ISIS controls down in the city of Baghouz, which is just south of the area that we’re talking about. It’s important to understand that there are ISIS elements scattered throughout the region. And that we have over in the western part of the country, near Idlib, a lot of unrest in that area because of al-Qaeda-linked groups. These are groups with a lot of the same agenda as the ISIS groups. And then north of Idlib, you have a territory that is controlled by Turkey right now. Turkey has forces 40 miles inside of Syria controlling the territory around Afrin. And that is a real sticking point, especially for this coalition that we’re talking about, the Kurds and others, and, I would say, for many Christians. Because in order to secure that territory, Turkey chased out a lot of Christian and Kurdish populations and they used some Islamic fighters in doing that. It’s been very controversial and no one really trusts Turkey in this region right now. So those are some of the threats that still remain. We’re not close to the end of this yet.
REICHARD: All these hardships, yet Christians do have something to celebrate: some churches in northern Syria are growing. What’s behind that?
BELZ: Well, you know, the astonishing thing and the thing that just continues to kind of, I guess, keep me going to back to this kind of warzone is that we find these silver linings in the midst of it. And one of them is that through all of this displacement that you and I have been talking about, Kurds and other Muslims are coming to faith, coming into churches. Churches are being planted among Kurdish populations. So even in the midst of just terrible, terrible destruction, we are seeing spiritual life and life in Christ being renewed. It’s amazing.
REICHARD: Mindy Belz is senior editor of WORLD Magazine. She’s also the author of They Say We Are Infidels, a book about ISIS persecution of Christians in the Middle East. Mindy, thanks for joining us today.
BELZ: You’re welcome, Mary.