The city of Homs, the third largest in Syria, has now seen almost its entire Christian population of 50,000 to 60,000 flee for safety as fighting continues in the stricken country.
The number of Christians left in the city has reportedly fallen to below 1,000 after the strife between the troops of President Bashar Assad and anti-government forces reached its peak there last month. Christians have fled to surrounding villages, other major Syrian cities, and even Lebanon. Those who remain have spoken of a growing “atmosphere of fear”.
During the worst of the conflict, the opposition forces attacked churches and also occupied an evangelical school and home for the elderly, which were then shelled by the army. Church leaders have reported that Muslim neighbours are turning on the Christians, and that Muslim extremists from other countries have been coming to Homs to join the fighting.
Christians have also suffered kidnappings and gruesome murders. Some Christian families, unable to pay a ransom for their relatives’ release and fearing that they may be tortured, have been driven to ask the kidnappers to kill their loved ones at once.
The number of doctors in Homs has dwindled from 850 to 35-50, and the number of functioning hospitals from 40-45 to just five or six. Some hospitals have been attacked and destroyed; others have closed because they have no drugs or other resources; and two more have been robbed to equip field hospitals. Five schools have also been damaged.
The displaced Christians face an uncertain future and are concerned that they may be unable to return home, while the plight of those who remain is truly desperate. Prices have rocketed, supplies have run low, and it has often been too dangerous to go out.
Danger beyond Homs
Christians are seriously endangered in other parts of Syria too. Not only are they generally assumed to be pro-Assad, but also a strongly Islamist element amongst the rebels will attack them simply because they are Christians.
Bombs have already exploded in the Christian quarters of Damascus and Aleppo. Church leaders hesitate to travel at night, believing that, as symbols of the Christian presence, they may be special targets for assassination. The authorities have warned the churches not to gather in large numbers over the Easter period in case their meetings are bombed.
One church leader told Barnabas Fund:
We hope for a safe future but nobody knows what will happen. There are many outside influences. We fear sectarian conflict. We fear becoming like Iraq. If the Christians leave the Arab countries it will be a loss for everybody.
Another added: “God willing, Syria will come out of it, but at what cost? I am not very optimistic that our Christian community will survive.
Barnabas Fund is working directly with Christian partners in the country to get emergency aid to needy Christians throughout Syria, including those from Homs and the victims of the bombings.
Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, said: “I have just returned from meeting Syrian church leaders, and I am more than ever convinced that our Christian brothers and sisters in Syria need our help. The dark days of the Middle Ages when many churches were burned and Christians slaughtered in the region are threatening to return, endangering the very existence of the churches in this land that has had a Christian presence for almost 2,000 years. Please help us to support the Christians of Syria in their desperate need.”
Source: The Barnabas Fund, Virtue Online, International Christian Concern