The Mar Elias Monastery in
Bethlehem--Christians in the
Near East are in great peril
Christians, who make up about 10 per cent of Syria's population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.
"What is happening in these neighbourhoods pains our hearts," said Maximos al-Jamal, a Greek Orthodox priest who is still in Homs. He says about 90 of the civilians in two besieged Homs neighbourhoods are Christians, down from thousands who lived in the area before the uprising began.
"Before we were staying here to guard our homes but now the situation is unbearable," one Homs resident told The Associated Press by telephone, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals by both sides of the conflict.
He said he feared the rebels want to keep the Christians trapped in the city as a bargaining chip while the army's bombardment and ground attacks on the city intensify. Syrian Christians have largely stuck by President Bashar Assad, fearing the strength of Muslim hard-liners in the uprising against his rule.
Several mediators have made an urgent appeal to evacuate the Christians who they fear could be targeted for their religion. Syrian Christians don't have to look far for an example of brutal treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled Iraq after their community and others were repeatedly targeted by extremist militants in the chaotic years after Saddam Hussein's 2003 ouster.
The Christians, who are trapped in Homs' Hamidiyeh and Bustan Diwan neighbourhoods, include four children under the age of 10. There is barely any electricity or running water, telephone lines are unreliable and they are forced to hide in shelters during daily shelling.
Al-Jamal said that many Christians from Homs are coming to his office in the city to get marriage or birth certificates to apply for visas to leave the country.
"If Syrian Christians get visas from other countries, I say more than 70 per cent of them will leave," he said.
For what you can do to help, contact the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. (Paste this into your browser: http://www.cnewa.org/home.aspx?ID=26&pagetypeID=12&sitecode=HQ )