Opponents of the Syrian government disputed a Vatican report that Christians had fled the town of Qusair after an “ultimatum” from the rebel leader, denouncing it as government propaganda.
News of alleged Christian persecution in the town close to the Lebanese border had been reported Saturday by the official Vatican news agency, adding to ongoing worries that the uprising against President Bashar Assad could devolve into sectarian strife between Islamists and religious minorities.
The Vatican agency said it wasn't clear why Christians had been ordered out of the town. “According to some, it serves to avoid more suffering to the faithful; other sources reveal 'a continuity focused on discrimination and repression.' Still others argue that Christians have openly expressed their loyalty to the state and for this reason the opposition army drives them away,” the news agency reported.
Opposition groups emphatically denied the report.
“We, the people of al-Qusair, confirm that we have lived together with our beloved Christian brothers and sisters for decades, working together and living alongside one another,” declared a Monday statement said to be from the rebel leadership in Qusair.
The rebels denied that mosques had sent out calls for Christians to leave the city and argued the government was behind the claim, which “clearly is to show that Assad is the protector of minorities.”
Syrian activists outside the country echoed their denials. Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist based in Washington, argued that the Vatican news agency had fallen for “the Assad propaganda machine” by relying on the “pro-regime” Christian religious establishment for information.
While the uprising against Assad has raged for more than a year, the Syrian president has held on to support from many Christians and other religious minorities who fear that his overthrow could lead to an Islamist takeover. Assad is part of the small Alawite religious sect.