Syria: Following threats from Assad opponents, Christians flee

The remaining Christians of Qusayr, a town near Homs, have fled for their safety. This followed an ultimatum from the chieftain of the forces opposing the Assad regime in Syria, Abdel Salam Harba. Reports out of Syria note that of the 10,000 Christians who once lived in Qusayr, only 1,000 remained last month after months of fighting between government forces and insurgents that started in 2011.  Following months of threats, mosques in Qusayr broadcast an ultimatum from the minarets that usually call faithful Muslims to prayer. The statements from the mosques declared, "Christians must leave Qusayr within six days, which expires this Friday." The ultimatum expired on June 8.

The Christians who had remained took courage from calls from an Catholic priest from Italy, Jesuit Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who had stayed in Qusayr for a week and called the faithful towards "praying and fasting for peace in the midst of the conflict".

The reasons for this ultimatum remain unclear. Some argue that Christians were targeted for having openly expressed their loyalty to the Syrian state and for this reason the insurgents wish to drive them away. Christians under President Bashar Al-Assad’s rule had enjoyed relative peace despite living in a majority Muslim country. The Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite branch of Islam, had been particularly severe with members of other branches of Islam. The insurgents are made up of opponents to Assad’s dictatorial rule, but also those influenced by Al-Qaeda and Iran.

Christians from Qusayr have joined the exodus of refugees to the valleys and the surrounding countryside, while others have taken refuge among relatives and friends in Damascus. A very few families have decided to stay at home in Qusayr, but their safety is now in question.

According to FIDES news service, Islamic Salafist extremist groups comprising the insurgents consider Christians as polytheist infidels. As infidels, Christians are thus subject to summary executions and confiscations should they not convert to Islam.

Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch of Damascus, has urged Christians to fast and pray for peace. He called upon Christians to show solidarity with Christians suffering persecution in Syria, so that "God can restore peace, brotherly love and mutual solidarity in Syria, in all its regions and among all its citizens." Patriarch Gregorios said, “In the Eastern tradition of the Church, after Pentecost in the month of June is observed the 'Fast of the Twelve Apostles', chief among whom are Peter and Paul, whom the Church in the East and West alike commemorates on June 29. This fast begins this year on June 4 and ends on June 28.”

Now, after the escalation of violence, especially the widespread series of assassinations and kidnappings for ransom that has affected a great many members of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church and others, especially in Homs, we ask all the children of our patriarchal Eparchy of Damascus to fast and say special prayers every day, at home and in church."

"This is our response to the painful events that have caused weeping and heartbreak, implanting terrifying images and causing hatred and revenge," said the Patriarch.

Speaking to all the faithful who can turn to God with special prayer intentions, Patriarch Gregorios prayed  "for all Christians that their hearts may be confirmed in true faith and united in thy Church; for leaders and members of Parliament, that they may be enlightened and follow the ways of understanding, compassion and effectual co-operation for all the inhabitants of Syria, that their hearts may be confirmed in understanding and peace.”

Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. He is also a freelance translator.


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