By George Whitten, BosNewsLife Senior Middle East Correspondent
JERUSALEM/DAMASCUS (BosNewsLife)- At least eight house churches in northern Syria have been closed down by the government as part of a crackdown on evangelical Christians in country, a Washington-based rights group said Tuesday, September 28.
International Christian Concern (ICC) said Syria’s government ordered their closure as authorities deemed them inappropriate. Many congregations in Syria can not afford to build a church and therefore hold worship services at homes of individual believers or purchase apartments to turn them into places of worship.
However in recent months Syria’s government has enforced legislation stating that congregations must only gather in buildings that resemble a church.
Syrian Christians say the government’s ‘legal’ excuse for closing churches is merely a cover-up for a wider government crackdown on evangelical Christian activity in Syria.
“Christians who are active in their faith know that they are watched very closely, and the government is waiting for an excuse to crack down on them”, ICC quoted an unidentified Syrian Christian as saying.
“The government is targeting all religious activities which are considered ‘extreme’ — from Muslim extremists all the way to Christians … It is generally believed that the government is getting reports from Orthodox and certain denominations as well as secret police and various Islamic congregations,” added the Christian, who apparently spoke anonymous due to security concerns.
Last week, Christian novelist Joel Rosenberg posted a letter from an Arab believer saying, “Our brethren and churches in Syria need urgent prayers. The government closed about eight evangelical churches in the last two weeks. All these churches are in North Syria, mainly in Lattakia, Tartous, Homs, and wadi Al-Nasara.”
Rosenberg warned “that some of the churches in Damascus and Aleppo know that their turn will come soon. They are closing some of the Baptist and Alliance churches. It is apparently by the approval of the High Counsel representative in Syria.”
ICC’s Regional Manager for the Middle East, Aidan Clay, told BosNewsLife that the latest developments underscore a new era for evangelical Christians in Syria. “Christians in Syria, unlike some of their neighbors, have enjoyed relative freedom to practice their faith,” he said. “Yet, religious freedom in Syria is a delicate ideal, and Syrian evangelicals have walked a tightrope not to offend the government and lose their precious liberty to worship.”
He expressed concern that “Prejudices and false reports” targeting the Syrian evangelical community “by both Orthodox Christians and certain Muslim groups, if continued, will destroy that fragile balance of religious freedom so cherished by Syrian evangelicals.” The ICC said is has urged the Syrian government “to preserve Syria’s religiously tolerant society and protecting its religious minorities.”