Why Christian communities in northeastern Syria may soon be gone

January 14, 2020

Since the first mission movements of the Early Church, Assyrian (Syriac) churches have never failed to maintain a confessional Christian presence in or near their original lands. If the current crisis facing northeastern Syria worsens, ancient Christian communities dating back to the Book of Acts might soon be deserted. The last remnants of this people group could be driven out of their homeland and their churches destroyed.  

In the last few months, things have grown increasingly dangerous for those who remain in northeastern Syria. Following the abrupt removal of U.S. troops in October 2019, Turkish forces immediately resumed attacks in the region using soldiers, warplanes, and drone strikes. Though their primary targets are allegedly Kurdish forces, the reality is that Turkey has been attacking indiscriminately and recklessly leading to the deaths or serious injury of many Christians and civilians, including children. To add to the imminent danger, the temporary leave taken by U.S. forces allowed for the reemergence of ISIS in the areas where Syriac churches and their families remain.   

Assyrian Christians in history and around the world

Assyrian Christians trace their ethnic roots back to the days of Abraham, and their Christian faith roots to the Early Church. As the gospel moved East during the first century, small Christian communities emerged quickly in ancient Assyria. As a result, for nearly two millennia now, Assyrian Christianity has maintained an indigenous presence in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria.  

Assyrian Christians not only have some of the deepest roots in the history of the Church, they also worship in one of the most sacred languages. The congregations of the Assyrians are often called “Syriac” churches because they speak, pray, sing, and read in a modern form of ancient Syriac. Syriac is a subset of Aramaic, which was the language spoken by Jesus and many of the earliest Jewish-background believers.  

As the Imperial Church became more formalized in the late Roman Empire, the Assyrians were often on the outside looking in. Syriac churches lacked representation in both Rome and Constantinople, which meant they did not play a significant role in either Western or Eastern Christendom.  

Throughout the centuries that followed and up until now, Assyrian Christians have endured sustained periods of persecution and attempts of genocide, most recently in the last century from the Turks. As a result, they have much fewer members than in centuries past, even with the exponential growth in the world’s population.   

The oldest form of Syriac Christianity, the Assyrian Church of the East, is today very small, with best estimates being between 300,000–400,000 members globally. Several other groups consider themselves Syriac Christians, including the Chaldeans, Jacobites, and even some Protestant/Evangelical strains. All combined, best estimates are that the adherents of this ancient form of confessional Christianity number somewhere around 4 million.  

Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, thousands of Assyrian Christians have fled northeastern Syria into surrounding countries. A similar exodus took place in Iraq a decade before, following the U.S withdrawal from that region. Some have even emigrated to Europe and the U.S., adding to the growing Assyrian Christian diaspora around the world.   

The Assyrian Christians must be seen, and their stories should be heard and retold.

The Western influence of these churches is steadily growing. In Chicago and its surrounding areas, for example, there are nearly 100,000 Assyrian Christians and several Syriac churches  

The migration of many Assyrians into the West does not reduce the immense historical and spiritual value of their original lands and traditions. Even those who no longer live in northeastern Syria still feel a sense of unity with the ancient body of Christ simply in knowing a presence remains in the places where their faith began.   

Happening right now

Even after the U.S. reversed its decision to withdraw from the region and ultimately  redeployed troops into Syria, Christian sources on the ground dispute claims that an actual cease-fire has yet to happen.  

Among the cities in the most imminent danger are two bastions of ancient Assyrian Christianity: Qamishli and Tel Tamr (Tal Tamer/Til Temir).  

In Qamishli, the larger of the two cities, the Christian community immediately released a statement of concern following the October reports of the U.S. withdrawal of troops. Their fears quickly became a reality. According to Mindy Belz of World, who continually provides comprehensive reporting in the area, “Qamishli and this region have been roiled with ISIS sleeper cells and Turkish-backed militias since October’s U.S. pullout from key border points, which precipitated an invasion by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”   

In November 2019, a series of attacks by ISIS were perpetrated in Qamishli in which Christians were targeted. Belz was across the street from one of the locations where a car bomb exploded, killing seven people and wounding dozens more. Belz reflects on her own brush with terror:   

“In America we absorb this news from a studied distance. In Qamishli, I didn’t have that option. I watched as shopkeepers moved toward the flames. They jumped atop fire trucks, carried out dead and wounded, and later joined workers who spent hours upon hours sweeping glass and debris from the streets. The next day much of the street reopened for business, and men sat brazenly on the sidewalk.” [full article]  

The number of Christians in Qamishli had already seen a dramatic decrease from 2011 to 2018, from around 25,000 to around 12,000. Following these tragic events in recent weeks, one can only surmise that many more Assyrian Christians, even among the most resilient of them, will leave Qamishli. Soon there could be no more Syriac churches remaining.  

In the smaller Tel Tamr, the situation could be even more bleak. Tel Tamr and its surrounding villages was home to 20,000 Assyrian Christians just five years ago. Now, only around 1,200 remain. The imminent danger from conflicts involving Turkish forces, the Syrian National Army (SNA), and the threat of ISIS could easily cause this city with its pivotal Syriac community to become completely deserted. In November, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in Syria released a video of ISIS members claiming they had “cut the road to Til Temir and we are marching towards the town.”  

According to Sylvain Mercadier of the Iraqi/Kurdish media outlet Rudaw, “If Tel Tamr falls . . . the ancient Christian presence in North-Eastern Syria will come to an end.”   

This is a story Assyrian Christians have seen before.  

In 2015, ISIS invaded the nearby Christian community of Tel Tal and destroyed many of its churches. They also kidnapped more than 220 people and held them for outrageous ransom amounts. Since that time, 90% of Assyrian Christians have fled, and less than a thousand remain. Where there were churches in 30 villages in the region before that time, now only one church still holds regular services.  

All of this leads many Assyrian Christians to ask: Will there be an ancient Christian presence—either in flesh and blood, brick and mortar, or stone and mud left in Syria in the next decade?  

What can be done?

A consistent theme emerges in every article, report, and interview regarding the Assyrians in their homeland: They must receive help from the international community, including further support from the U.S. and our allies.  

Thankfully, there is overwhelming bi-partisan support for maintaining a reasonable, yet strong presence in northeastern Syria. This is, in part, to help protect our allies such as the Kurds and to continue to eradicate terror groups. There is also the goal of protecting the Syrian people themselves and helping them maintain their homes and identities in their own lands.  

Assyrian families and churches simply cannot survive these conflicts and threats of terrorism alone. They need our government and church leaders to pay attention and renew our support.  

This is where we who are their brothers and sisters in Christ and part of the global Christian community must take notice.   

  1. The Assyrian Christians must be seen, and their stories should be heard and retold.  
  2. As our understanding of their situation deepens, our intercession for them in our prayer lives must also deepen.  
  3. There are several great organizations and leaders working on the frontlines of this crisis. Many are working directly with Syriac Christians and other vulnerable people who are made in God’s image, and our support can make a difference right now.   
  4. We must speak up in support of the immense value of their lives, homes, and freedom—including their religious freedom. As Americans, we have voices to raise to elected officials and others who affect international policies and diplomacy. The bottom line is that stability and wholeness will not be achieved in northeastern Syria without our continued involvement.  

There is little to no time left. If the few Christian families and churches remaining in northeastern Syria are not protected, this may well be the last few months for ancient Assyrian Christian communities in their homeland.  


  1. Christoph Baumer, The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity (Bloomsbury, 2016).
  2. Sylvain Mercadier, “Tel Tamr: the last Assyrian frontline,” Rudaw (12/1/19): https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/01122019   
  3. Jayson Casper, “Syrian Christians Brave Insecurity to Stay Behind and Help,” Christianity Today (10/18/19): https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/october/syrian-christians-open-doors-preemptive-love-aid-relief.html   
  4. Casper, “Syrian Christians to US: ‘Don’t Abandon Us Now’,” Christianity Today (10/8/19) : https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2019/october/syrian-christians-kurds-us-withdrawal-turkey.html
  5. Belz, Mindy, “In the house of mourning: Syrians want ‘our pain to reach your government’,”  World (11/21/19): https://world.wng.org/2019/11/in_the_house_of_mourning
  6. Belz, “Attacks in Syria target Christians, civilians,” World (11/12/19): https://world.wng.org/2019/11/attacks_in_syria_target_christians_civilians
  7. Belz, “Witness to atrocities: Refugees attest to indiscriminate killings by Turkish fighters as the Trump administration reverses course, sends troops back into Syria,” World (11/11/19): https://world.wng.org/2019/11/witness_to_atrocities 
  8. Belz, “A cruel withdrawal: The departure of U.S. forces from Syria allows Turkish forces to target civilians with atrocities—even during a U.S.-brokered cease-fire,” World (11/9/19): https://world.wng.org/2019/10/a_cruel_withdrawal
  9. Makini Brice et.al, “U.S. Republicans join Democrats to blast Syria withdrawal)” Reuters (10/7/19): https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey-usa-congress/us-republicans-join-democrats-to-blast-trumps-syria-withdrawal-idUSKBN1WM1ZO
  10. Marlo Safi, “Closure of Syrian Schools: Another Bleak Sign for Christians in Syria,” National Review (9/25/18): https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/09/assyrian-christians-face-persecution-kurdish-nationalists/
  11. Ben Hubbard, “ ‘There Are No Girls Left: Syria’s Christian Villages Hollowed Out by ISIS,” New York Times (8/15/18): https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/15/world/middleeast/syria-isis-assyrian-christians.html
  12. Robert Herguth, “Chicago immigrant: Assyrians suffered ‘so much’ but ‘still have hope’,” Chicago Sun-Times (3/7/18): https://chicago.suntimes.com/2018/3/7/18401757/chicago-immigrant-assyrians-suffered-so-much-but-still-have-hope
  13. Karwan Faidhi Dri, “Turkish shelling kills at least 10 civilians, mostly children, in NW Syria: local sources,” Rudaw (12/2/19): https://www.rudaw.net/english/middleeast/syria/02122019 
  14. Carl Anderson, “A mass Christian exodus from the Middle East would be a catastrophe,” New York Post (11/15/19): https://nypost.com/2019/11/15/a-mass-christian-exodus-from-the-middle-east-would-be-a-catastrophe/ 

Eric Costanzo

Eric Costanzo (Ph.D.) is lead pastor of South Tulsa Baptist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and executive director for RisingVillage.org, an organization with initiatives to help marginalized people become full participants in their communities. Eric is also co-author of Inalienable (IVP, 2022). Eric’s other publications are available from his website. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24