Almost all Christians in the conflict-torn Syrian city of Homs have fled violence and persecution, amid reports that their homes have been attacked and seized by “fanatics” with links to al-Qaida.
With ninety percent of Christians having reportedly left their homes, the violence is driving fears that Syria could become a “second Iraq” with church attacks, kidnappings and forced expulsions of believers.
The exodus of 50,000 or more Christians has taken place largely in the past six weeks. It is part of al-Qaida-linked militant Islamic groups’ “ongoing ethnic cleansing” of Christians, according to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
Homs has been home to one of Syria’s largest Christian populations and Church sources say that the faithful have borne the brunt of the violence. They have escaped to villages, many of which are in mountains 30 miles outside the city.
Islamists have allegedly gone from house to house in the Homs neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan and have forced Christians to leave without giving them a chance to take their belongings.
The crisis in Homs has increased fears that Islamists are gaining influence in the region in the power vacuum left by the overthrow of other Arab governments in the “Arab Spring.”
The comparisons with Iraq are also ominous. Anti-Christian violence in Iraq has helped drive the Christian population from 1.4 million in the late 1980s to less than 300,000 today.
In both Syria and Iraq the Church is being targeted for its perceived close links with regimes under attack from opposition parties and rebel groups.
The uprising in Syria started in March 2011 with protests advocating political reform. The uprising has become increasingly militarized. More than 8,000 people have been killed in the conflict in the past year, U.N. figures say.
Many in the opposition are from the country’s Sunni majority, while religious minorities continue to back President Bashar al-Assad. The exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not monopolize power in a new regime but will back a democratic state with equality for all citizens and respect for human rights.
On March 26, Syrian government forces shelled Homs and carried out arrest raids. A human rights group says that government forces appear to be preparing to retake rebel-held parts of the city, the Associated Press reported.
The government has accused insurgents of terrorism and international conspiracy, while the government itself faces accusations of torture and massacres of civilians.
The Christian community has suffered from terrorist attacks in other cities.
On March 18, a car bomb explosion targeted the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St. Bonaventure. Aid to the Church in Need is helping families of the victims.
“The people we are helping are very afraid,” said Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, who is overseeing the aid program. “The Christians don’t know what their future will hold. They are afraid they will not get their homes back.”
The displaced people of Homs are desperate for food and shelter. Aid to the Church in Need has announced an urgent $100,000 aid package to relieve their needs.
Each family will receive $60 each month for basic food and lodging. Organizers of the assistance hope that they can return home by the summer.
Bishop Audo told Aid to the Church in Need that it is very important to help those in distress.
“Pray for us and let us work together to build peace in Syria,” he said.