A bomb was planted in the confessional box of one of the world’s oldest churches in a Syrian town hailed as the country’s last remaining centre of religious tolerance, the country’s most senior Christian leader has disclosed.
On a visit to London Wednesday to highlight the persecution of Christians in the civil war, Patriarch Gregorios III said two devices were found at the Cathedral of Constantine and Helen in the rebel-held town of Yabroud.
The church lies in a town where Christians and Sunni Muslims have so far resisted efforts by fighters allied to al-Qaeda to drive a wedge between them.
A self-appointed local council has tried to keep both foreign jihadists and local mafia gangs at bay, as well as government forces. Only last week the Syrian army shelled the church.
The Patriarch said two remote-controlled bombs were discovered in the church on Tuesday, one in the confessional box. He also claimed that local Christian families had been asked to pay a monthly protection tax of $35,000 by local “armed groups.”
“Yabroud is under the control of armed groups, and Christians are asked for protection money, yet in spite of this, there are these bombs being placed in the church,” he said.
He added that in the event of a rebel victory in the country’s civil war, life for Christians could get even harder because of the hardline Islamist elements in the anti-government ranks.
“The extremists are against even the normal rebel opposition,” he said. “This is an issue for Muslims as well as Christians. I am not afraid of Islam, I am just afraid of chaos, which will allow these groups to play a very destructive role.”
The Patriarch was speaking as part of event organised by Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic charity that supports Christians facing persecution around the world. In a new report, it has highlighted that, while many of al-Qaeda’s Sunni extremists are far keener on persecuting Shia Muslims, the sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs, Christians are perceived to be a target as part of the “Crusader” religion.
Predominant in the Syrian middle class, they are also seen to have prospered under Assad’s regime, inviting accusations of being collaborators.
Hundreds of thousands have been displaced during the fighting in the past two years, with about 1,000 killed.