At least 300 Christians have been forced to leave several towns in northeastern Syria, as Turkish forces move in to clear the area of Kurdish fighters, according to a report Thursday.
Fr. Nidal Thomas, a senior priest of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Hassake, warned that the exodus is threatening to grow.
“We are afraid that if the fighting continues, there could be a still greater exodus which might even include the town of Qamishli, where there are 2,300 Christians families living at present,” Fr. Thomas said in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Since President Donald J. Trump ordered American troops out of the area, Turkish armed forces have been moving into a 20-mile wide “safe zone,” clearing it of Kurdish fighters that they consider terrorists.
Fr. Thomas said the uncertainty of the situation fuels the problem, as well as the actions of Turkish forces.
“We don’t know what is actually happening,” he said. “Every hour we hear reports from the Kurds, the Turks, the Americans, and the Russians, of victims and people fleeing. But we don’t know the real truth. The only thing we know for certain is that the bombings and, above all, the massacres committed by Turks against our community are forcing more and more Christians to flee.”
He said that two-thirds of the Christians have left Syria, and the remaining third risks being unable to survive.
“And meanwhile, the Western countries are fighting among themselves to divide up Syria, which has been brought to its knees also by the international sanctions,” he said. “There were thousands of Christian families in our country. No one attempted to defend us.”
One of the fears that has been expressed following the withdrawal of U.S. troops has been the new vulnerability of Kurds in the area, and the resulting strengthening of a dormant Islamic State. Kurdish forces had been guarding prisons full of captured ISIS militants, but the sudden need to defend themselves against advancing Turkish troops means fewer guards for the prisons. Fr. Thomas described how many ISIS fighters have joined the Turkey-backed Syrian National Armies that seized Ras-al-Ain, and that the threat of a jihadist revival is ever-present.
“Unfortunately this an eventuality we have to take into account,” he commented.