Raqqa (Agenzia Fides) - Almost 5 years after the expulsion of the jihadist militias from Raqqa, the church of the Martyrs, which had been reduced to rubble, stands out again in the city center in all its splendor. It was in the hands of the militiamen of the Islamic State for a long time, who transformed it into a court, and even from there they dictated the law and imposed their jihadist "justice". Then it was devastated by Western-led bombing that destroyed much of the city center, when what had been the Syrian capital-stronghold of the Black Caliphate for years had to be conquered. In recent years it has been rebuilt as new by a singular para-military movement, the Free Burma Rangers, formed in conflicts between ethnic militias and the Burmese army, on the initiative of an American evangelical pastor. But the few indigenous Christians who still live in the city do not frequent it, no masses are celebrated there, and it is used from time to time by newly formed evangelical Christian groups.
The sequence of things that have taken place in and around that church in recent years, once officiated by priests of the Armenian-Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo, makes that place of worship a kind of emblem of the pressures, conflicting interests and enigmatic factors that condition the presence of Christians in Syria and in other Middle Eastern scenarios. "There is something strange in that affair, it is not clear what is behind it", Boutros Marayati, Armenian Catholic Archbishop of Aleppo confides to Fides.
The one dedicated to the martyrs was and remains the most important and visible church in Raqqa. Before the war, it was a point of reference for the more than 150 Christian families of the city, which also counted two other places of worship belonging to the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Greek-Melkite Catholic Church. In 2014, when the city was conquered by the militiamen of the self-styled Islamic State (Daesh), the jihadists took over the church and the service buildings, placing the seat of the Islamic court there. In 2017, the church of the Martyrs was also destroyed by the bombing carried out by the anti-Daesh coalition to break the resistance of the jihadist militias. The city was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF, a coalition of predominantly Kurdish militias) supported and armed by the United States. Since then, the whole of north-eastern Syria - an area which also includes Raqqa - has become a disputed and unstable land in which Kurdish autonomist projects, the claims of power in Damascus, jihadist resistance, raids and Turkish occupations in an anti-Kurdish key meet and clash. In Raqqa, power goes into the hands of a civil council dominated by Kurdish forces and militarily protected by the US, which also thanks to US logistical, military and financial support begins to rebuild the destroyed city. Among the first works put in place is the reconstruction of the destroyed church of the Martyrs, also with the declared purpose of demonstrating the prompt closeness of the new power to Christians, persecuted and mistreated under the jihadist regime of the Islamic State. The Free Burma Rangers, a unique non-governmental organization that appeared in Myanmar at the end of the 90s, as an element of support to the resistance groups of the Karen ethnic group against the offensives of the Burmese army, take charge of the reconstruction of the Armenian Catholic place of worship.The Rangers' activities are inspired by their founder, US evangelical pastor Dave Eubank, educated at Fuller Theological Seminary (considered one of the most influential evangelical training institutes) and at the same time a former US Army Special Forces Officer. After spending several years as a missionary in Burma, Eubank had the intuition to exploit his mix of military skills and strong idealistic motivations to create a new model of intervention in conflict scenarios. The Free Burma Rangers he set up operate on the open war fronts as auxiliary humanitarian, health and media support groups to guerrillas, militias and armies engaged in battles against forces and apparatuses identified as embodiments of oppression, abuse and violence.
After the involvement on the battle fronts in Myanmar, the Burma Rangers teams also worked alongside the Iraqi army in the battle to free Mosul from Daesh militiamen. Then, in Raqqa, they offered their services to the Kurdish militias who, with US support, freed the city from the jihadists, with the so-called "war of annihilation". The Rangers do not participate directly in military offensives, but to ensure self-defense they move armed on the war fronts, because - explained the founder in an interview - "we are not pacifists".
In Syria, after 2017, the commitment of the Burma Rangers also focused on the symbols of the Christian presence, disfigured during the war years. In coordination with the local Kurdish-led civil council, the Burma Rangers teams launch the project to rebuild the church of the Martyrs in Raqqa.
Before starting the construction site, they ask the Armenian-Catholic Archdiocese of Aleppo to have the maps of the place of worship, in order to be able to reconstruct it according to the original design and plans. But the request actually falls on deaf ears. The church is rebuilt without the Armenian-Catholic Church receiving any sign of consent or appreciation for the initiative. The works proceed slowly also due to the pandemic, but in November 2021 the church appears ready.
On the outside, there are more refined details than those of the previous church, but the parish priest's house and the school are not rebuilt, the remains of which are demolished and removed, leaving a large empty space. Inside, there is no altar, but an ambo for preaching, in accordance with the prevalent model in the places of worship of evangelical communities. After the inauguration, the few dozen Christians present in Raqqa are invited to go to the rebuilt church. But the place of worship remains empty even on Christmas days. No mass, no priest to celebrate and confess. "They say it is our church, that they rebuilt it for the Christians of Raqqa" confides Archbishop Marayati "but we know nothing about it. The initiative aims to send a message: let's rebuild churches, and defend Christians. But we do not get involved with operations of this type". The place of worship is only occasionally visited by members of recently formed evangelical communities, which also welcome Kurds converted from Islam.
While many Christians from Raqqa, who fled to Lebanon, Turkey or the West, have already decided not to return. In the political chaos left as a legacy of the war, especially in the Syrian north-east, even the "protection of Christians" becomes a terrain of contention and a subject of propaganda. The system headed by President Bashar al Assad presents itself as the protector of Christians. While the separatist Kurds who control a large part of Northeast Syria with US support aim to credit that region as a model and prototype of a democratic, pluralist, tolerant and multi-ethnic Syria. Their antagonism to the Damascus regime makes it difficult to send priests and religious to the areas they control. Thus, the communities of indigenous Churches are dispersing in the diaspora every day, while new spaces seem to open up for the activism of evangelical and Pentecostal groups, also thanks to explicit support and support guaranteed by political and military forces operating in the field, such as the political-military leadership of the Kurds and the continuing US military presence deployed in their support on Syrian territory.
The teams trained by Eubank and its collaborators give great importance to the registration and media relaunch of their businesses. The film Rambo 4, the fourth film in the saga of the soldier-hero played by Sylvester Stallone, portrayed the Burmese military in the role of "evil oppressors". And the ideas for the plot and script of the film were largely drawn from the reports and videos made on the field by the Free Burma Rangers teams.
Some implications of the reconstruction of the church of Raqqa can be understood if we take into account the thinking that guides the founder and the leadership of the Burma Rangers, pushing them to justify their action on the war fronts with religious motivations. " At that time", David Eubank himself said in an interview in October 2020, "a tribe in Burma (Myanmar) called the Wa came out to Thailand and asked for help. They met my parents who were missionaries there and they saw a picture of me with my green beret. They said "We are warrior people; if he is a warrior and he is following Jesus please send him... ". (GV) (Agenzia Fides, 18/2/2022)