Christians In Syria Face Violence, Discrimination

Guest host Don Gonyea speaks with Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, who oversees parishes throughout Syria where Catholics and Christians have been targets of violent discrimination because of their faith.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. After more than two straight years of civil war in Syria, there is almost no segment of the population left unaffected. Today, we're going to look at Syria's Christian population and how their lives have been changed by the war. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa is Custodian of the Holy Land, which means he oversees Catholic priests of the Franciscan order throughout the Middle East and Syria.

In those countries, of course, Christians have been targets of violence. He's traveled back and forth to Syria many times both before and during the conflict. He started by describing what things were like there before the war.

THE REV. PIERBATTISTA PIZZABALLA: With the start of the war, the situation changed dramatically, but also depends where. In the south, in Damascus, the situation is still relatively calm. In the north, the situation's really dramatic. Part of the north is under the rebels' control. They are mostly coming from other Arab countries - Pakistan, Chechnya and Libya - and they are fundamentalists.

They never met a Christian in their life and don't consider that the presence of Christians is as positive element for them, so the Christians are under threat continuously.

GONYEA: So describe for me how that has changed in specific ways, if you can, since the...

PIZZABALLA: The life in Syria's changed for everyone, not only for Christians.

GONYEA: Yeah, obviously.

PIZZABALLA: Even for the Christians, most of the problems are the same problems for Christians and Muslims. In our jobs, the travels are dangerous, there is no control of the territories so the criminality is becoming a serious problem for all, of course. In some parts of the country, as I said, mostly in the north, close to the border with Turkey, the rebels have the control and they refuse anyone that is different from them.

GONYEA: And there are different rebel groups?

PIZZABALLA: Yes, different. The problem is you don't know with whom you are dealing because there are many, many groups, many different movements. There is coordination among them.

GONYEA: If we look at what we've seen play out with the Arab Spring across this region of the world, have Christians been on the wrong side of history in what we see playing out now, because as you described with Syria, in many places the existing government did provide a level of stability.

PIZZABALLA: It's difficult question. I don't know if only in a few years we can have a clear answer. Middle East is changing dramatically. No one can say how Middle East will be in five years. But these changes are necessary. The modernity's challenging also Middle East and Islamic world. This is a fact. And it is true that Christians now are afraid, afraid to lose their position that they had in the past.

They are afraid of raising of the fundamentalism, they are afraid of what we have now is Islamic regimes in their respective countries. These are legitimate fears, of course, but this is a passage that we go through.

GONYEA: Can you characterize, based on what you've hearing, what Christian feelings are within Syria about the Assad government and even about the uprising? Is that even a complex?

PIZZABALLA: It's a very difficult question. I don't know if I have a clear answer. The Christians are not people in itself. Of course, as I said, Christian communities under Assad regime, they are protected, and this protection is finished. They have to look forward to the future, not looking for protection but for guarantees and rights.

So there are parts of the Christians, I have to say, frankly, that they are nostalgic for the past; others that are afraid of the future but they know that the future is changing and they have to be open and positive in spite of all the violence of the present day. In (unintelligible) for instance, with the uprising, there are Muslims and Christians together. Then after the uprising, everyone wanted a change.

When you start with this case about what you want to change and not, the visions came out, but this is normal, is human. Once again, there are Christians and Christians.

GONYEA: Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa is Custodian of the Holy Land. Thanks for coming in.

PIZZABALLA: Thank you.

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