BRUSSELS — Moved by the dramatic situation of the Christian population in Aleppo, Syria's largest city, a group of Belgian activists, with support from the government, orchestrated a remarkable rescue operation to save nearly 250 Syrian Christians.
In Aleppo, the Christians were under continuous assault by ISIS, the al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra front and the Assad regime. Now they're set to receive refugee status in Belgium and join the approximately 5,500 Syrian refugees already in the country.
In total, seven separate groups of refugees left Aleppo to reach Lebanon over the course of May after undergoing a preliminary examination by the Belgian intelligence services. They drove on the last safe highway out of the devastated city, only a few hundred meters wide.
Belgian officials ensured the groups passed the Lebanese-Syrian border unencumbered, and upon their arrival in Beirut the Belgian embassy granted them a visa to board a plane to Brussels, on a flight either self-financed or paid for by the group of activists.
There are 25 people on the committee that organized the operation, some of them lawyers, doctors and civil servants. Most choose to remain anonymous. They come from civil society, include members of several religions, and were mobilized by Logia, a Christian organization. Fearing for their safety, the group was careful not to publicize their plans.
To turn their plan into reality, the organizers of the unprecedented mission contacted Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders and Theo Francken, secretary of state for migration. Francken, a Flemish nationalist who professes a tough stance on immigration and has been criticized for his dubious links to the far right, surprisingly supported the initiative.
A former Belgian ambassador to Syria who maintained contacts in the war-torn country and a Belgian priest who still lives there both contributed to the success of the operation.
Why just Christians?
When the government finally decided to make it public, on July 8, the announcement sparked questions and criticism. Some members of the committee that organized the rescue worry that it will now be more difficult, as a result, for them to save refugees in the future. Other Belgians have questioned the way the refugees were chosen for rescue.
"This was the most difficult phase," says Peter Adriaenssens, a psychologist who is part of the committee. "We favored families with children, for Syria's future."
In an interview with the Brussels-based De Standaard, a leading member of Aleppo's Christian community noted that only people from the small Maronite Christian minority were rescued. "Other Christians met the Belgian criteria but were not given a chance," the source said.
Why, many ask, did the government only rescue Christians? "I expected this decision to draw criticism," says Francken, the secretary for migration. "These people were not saved because they were Christian, but because they were among the most vulnerable in the civil war."
A UN representative shares that opinion. "There is no problem with this choice," the UN official says. "Christians are particularly targeted in the war."
Aleppo had 160,000 Christians before the war. Belgian authorities estimate there are only 55,000 left now.
Several NGOs fear the collateral damage stemming from the Belgian government's decision. Brigitte Hermans, an expert from the Catholic NGO Pax Christi, worries that the rescue will only embolden Bashar al-Assad's claims that ISIS, rather than his regime, is the true threat to the Syrian people. Other sources believe that tensions between Maronite Christians and other communities in Aleppo could rise as a result.
Certain observers have harshly criticized the Michel administration, calling the rescue a public relations stunt. The government had been facing criticism in the past for its lackluster response to the refugee crisis in Europe, and still has not specified how many asylum seekers it will accept from the rest of the EU. Echoing the concerns of other EU members, Brussels opposes the proposals for a mandatory quota system but has yet to indicate whether it will host part of the 64,000 people who need to be resettled.
Another troubling side of the affair is that the entire management of Vluchtelingenwerk Vlaanderen, one of the largest Flemish NGOs aiding refugees, will be let go for "budgetary reasons." A partner of the federal authorities, the organization claims it is being victimized for political reasons. "They don't want to invest in a critical organization, even as we face the worst crisis since World War II," says Els Keytsman, the NGO's director.