Church fears 'ethnic cleansing' of Christians in Homs, Syria

Beirut, Lebanon - The Syrian Orthodox Church is worried about “an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” in the embattled city of Homs, reports Agenzia Fides, the official Vatican news agency.

Anti-government militants have expelled 90% of Christians in Homs and confiscated their residences by force, said Fides, citing a note sent to the agency by the Syrian Orthodox Church.

The Vatican agency cited sources saying militants went door to door in the Homs neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, “forcing Christians to flee, without giving them the chance to take their belongings.”

Estimates vary, but Syria’s Christians, with ancient roots, are generally said to represent as much as 10% of the nation’s 23 million people.

Syria’s Christian community has generally been regarded as supportive of the secular goverment of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which, despite its systematic repression of political dissent, has been tolerant of religious minorities.

The year-old Syrian insurgency is rooted in the nation’s Sunni Muslim majority, though the uprising has supporters from other faiths, including Christians. Assad and many of his security force chiefs are from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Many observers have expressed fears that the Syrian conflict, which began with street protests met by a fierce government crackdown, is becoming more and more violent and sectarian in nature. Leaders of the fractured opposition have denied sectarian motives and say all groups are welcome to join the rebellion.

Homs, home to more than 1 million people before the violence broke out, has suffered more casualties than any other region. Many residents have fled, and several neighborhoods, such as Baba Amr and Khaldiya, have been extensively shelled and bear the signs of fierce street battles. Homs’ pre-conflict population was mostly Sunni Muslim with substantial Christian and Alawite communities.

The Fides article quoted Msgr. Giuseppe Nazzaro, the vicar apostolic of the northern city of Aleppo, as saying that “Islamist and terrorist movements are making headway.”

A car bomb Sunday in Aleppo exploded near a Franciscan school, Nazzaro told Fides. But he said “by a miracle a massacre of children was avoided” when priests, “sensing danger,” managed to evacuate children before the bomb exploded.

“These are bad times for religious minorities,” Fides reported the monsignor as saying.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has cited witness statements accusing the Syrian rebels of torture, kidnapping and executions, among other "serious human rights abuses." But Human Rights Watch and other monitors say the scale of government abuse — including wholesale shelling of neighborhoods, mass detentions and extrajudicial executions — dwarfs reports of abuse by the opposition.