Hidden Christians

By: Christina Salem

(Ritsona Refugee Camp, Greece.)— Imagine fleeing your homeland because of fear of persecution for your faith, only to reach a destination of refuge and find that you still weren’t safe.

Unsafe to reveal your identity to the people around you. Unsafe to practice your religion freely, and having to live under covert identities to protect against further persecution and a lack of basic resources.

That was the history of minority Christians who have once again found themselves as the minority in Greek refugee camps.

“Before the war, we were like brothers, we got along,” says Abu Janty, a 17-year-old Syrian Christian refugee camper at Greece’s Ritsona Refugee Camp. “They [Daesh] separated us. It was not like this. They put one against the other.”

As a result, he suggests, when they arrive at Muslim majority refugee camps, they often choose not to identify as Christian.

Abu Janty says his best friends in the camp are Kurdish Muslims.  He stresses that they are all humans experiencing inhumane treatment collectively and banding together lessens the burden on all of them.

A recent report by The World Post, a partner of The Huffington Post, indicates the phenomenon of Christians hiding their faith among the refugee population is coming from a fear of continued persecution they faced in their homelands due to Islamic Extremism.

“Although Christians have lived in the Middle East – the birthplace of Christianity – for nearly two thousand years, as a result of years of persecution and discrimination, especially in the past 15 years, they now constitute no more than 3-4% of the region’s population, down from 20% a century ago.”

The World Post reports “The resurfacing of religious division vis-à-vis the Sunni-Shia conflict, and between different Sunni sects, is creating a societal mindset that posits other religious groups as ‘the enemy.’

Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS exploit this intolerance of religious and inter-religious out-groups, with the latter taking such fanaticism to new and barbaric heights.

In addition, the wanton persecution of religious minorities is compounded by the threat of radicalization, which threatens social cohesion and combines religious doctrine with fanatical violence.”

“We had a case from Lebanon, a Christian man, about 72-years-old, claimed to be a Syrian Muslim man to receive better resources among the rest of his fellow campers… When we contacted his relatives after his passing, we found he wasn’t in fact Syrian, nor Muslim.” Tasos Yfantis of Doctors of the World says.

A 2016 report by the International Christian Consulate or ICC, surveyed the Christian refugees in Greece to determine their condition as a minority group within the refugee population.

“Imagine a man who has to find a cemetery and is a Christian and all of his family is Christian, but on paper he’s Muslim… This is only to take advantage of asylum,” he says.

According to the ICC’s data compiled in the end of 2016, “there are approximately 12,000 refugees in Athens. That number included an estimated 3% who were Christian.

Between April and December 2016, nearly 34% of that population was surveyed in the Athens area, collecting documented information on the conditions of Christian refugees, and evidence of vulnerability as a minority group within the camps and other refugee accommodation.”

The vast majority, 92% of Christians surveyed, said they were afraid to be identified as Christian for fear of ongoing persecution after arriving in Greece for refuge.

ICC says the majority of them had to hide their faith, women had to keep their heads covered, bibles could not be read, and Christians had to be especially careful of being followed to churches outside of camps.

All respondents who had not witnessed or experienced threats/attacks stated that the reason for this was because they were going to great lengths to hide their Christian identity or were staying away from the camps or other refugees.

One third of respondents personally experienced physical attacks because of their religion, some of which were extremely serious and required hospitalization, and several had been attacked repeatedly.

According to ICC many NGOs are providing basic care through the provisions of food, clothing, medical care, and some language classes, but there are not provisions for safe accommodations for Christians, specifically.

At Ristona refugee camp in Greece, volunteers concede that Christians are the minority among the Muslim majority, and Christian youths at Ritsona do not wish to identify as such mainly out of fear.

As a result, there are no resources offered specifically to Christians. For example, while there is a Mosque for worship, there is no designated church. Religious holidays, such as Ramadan, are imposed among all campers.

Volunteer organizations say they are not able to specifically give Christians treatment over others because it would result in discriminatory accusations, but the vulnerabilities of this group maintains higher than the latter according to ICC.

The ICC calls for volunteer organizations in Greece to cover the need to protect this largely unrecognized and inadequately provided for vulnerable group for fear of a lack of Western recognition and protection due to political sensitivities.

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