(CNSNews.com) – Claims that a Catholic priest has been beheaded by jihadist rebels in Syria are drawing new attention to the plight of Syrian Christians, caught in the middle of a brutal struggle and said by campaigners to face an existential threat.
Last week the Vatican reported that a Catholic priest, Francois Murad, had been killed by militants who attacked a monastery in northern Syria on Sunday, June 23. Citing a report by the Franciscan “Custodian of the Holy Land,” Vatican press services initially reported that the priest had been shot and killed while trying to defend nuns and others sheltering at the monastery of St. Anthony.
A subsequent Vatican Radio report said the circumstances of Murad’s death were “not fully understood,” and added that those who attacked the monastery were reported to be “militants linked to the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusrah.”
Then on Saturday, Catholic Online pointed to a gruesome video clip that has been posted online, and identified Murad as one of three men who are seen being decapitated by rebel fighters, as dozens of onlookers cheer, chant “Allahu akbar” and take photos.
It isn’t the first video to emerge depicting rebels carrying out a beheading in Syria, but is believed to be the first in which, according to the claims, a Christian was specifically targeted. Two Orthodox bishops from Aleppo, kidnapped by unidentified rebels last April, remain missing.
Jabhat al-Nusrah is an al-Qaeda front group viewed by regional experts as one of the most effective among the rebel formations fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Obama administration, which last December blacklisted al-Nusrah as a foreign terrorist organization, has agreed to supply weapons to anti-Assad rebels, stressing the U.S. will only support “moderates” in the opposition ranks.
Western church leaders concerned about Syrian Christians are among those who have urged the U.S. and European governments not to add more arms to the conflict.
During a hearing on Capitol Hill last week members of two House Foreign Affairs subcommittees heard testimony about the dangers facing Syrian Christians, including those posed by extremists among the rebels.
“Islamist factions, which include Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist, and al-Qaeda-linked groups and are rapidly overtaking the undisciplined and poorly organized rebels as they have in other countries, operate on the assumption that minorities, particularly Alawites and Christians, support the regime,” Majed El Shafie of One Free World International said in written testimony.
“As a result, minorities are targeted both for their politics and as minorities who must either convert or be killed. Many towns captured by rebels have been cleared of their Christian populations either with the Christians fleeing the oncoming Islamists or being forced out by threats that they must convert, flee, or be killed.”
El Shafie told the lawmakers providing weapons to the Syrian rebels “will be a mistake that the innocent people will pay the price for, especially the minorities.”
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, told the hearing that Christians were “both trapped in a vise between the two sides of a brutal conflict, and specifically targeted in an ethno-religious cleansing campaign.”
She said while all groups in Syria were suffering it was critical for the U.S. to highlight the particular persecution faced by Christians.
Shea said the State Department’s recently-released report on international religious freedom noted “rather blandly that there are reports of harassment of Christians [in Syria] and that societal tolerance for Christians was, quote, dwindling. Few actual cases were cited by the State Department and there’s not really the slightest hint in this gross understatement that the threat they face is an existential one.”
In his testimony Thomas Melia, deputy assistant secretary in the State’s Department’s bureau of democracy, human rights and labor, cited abuses in Syria attributed to opposition groups including bombings, rapes, kidnappings and the execution of a teenager accused of blasphemy.
But he said those responsible do not “reflect the mindset of the vast majority of the Syrian people, or even the vast majority of the active Syrian opposition.”
“The atrocities committed by these extremist elements should not be conflated with the efforts by the moderate opposition, including the Supreme Military Council, to seek an end to the Assad regime and to facilitate an orderly political transition.”
The need for a special envoy focusing on the region came up during the hearing. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has for two years promoted legislation to establish a special envoy to promote religious freedom specifically in the Middle East and South-Central Asia. It passed in the House with strong bipartisan support in 2011, but stalled in the U.S. Senate last year.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) asked Melia about the administration’s stance on the legislation but he confirmed it did not support the move, believing the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and other staff were “able to address these issues and we don’t need an additional envoy at this point.”
Smith said he hoped the administration would reconsider, arguing that an envoy “with the ear of the president would have additional clout, to really convey – including to the Free Syrian Army – how serious we are about hands off those people who are at risk, including the Christians.”