By Bassem Mroue AP and The Boston Globe www.boston.com
BEIRUT—Inside the besieged Syrian city of Homs, where hundreds of civilians are caught up in a fierce battle between rebels and government troops, a small group of Christians is making its own desperate pleas for safety.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent 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 neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods 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’s Hamidiyeh and Bustan Diwan neighborhoods, 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.
Pictures posted online from the neighborhoods show empty streets full of debris, and bullet-riddled buildings and churches with blown up walls and windows. Al-Jamal said a Greek Orthodox and a Protestant church were destroyed.
Father Michel Noman, who is trying to mediate a safe passage for the Christians, wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to Hamidiyeh, that the people trapped in the area are tired.
“I tell them all, there are people who have been working to get you out. We will keep trying 20 more times and 30 more times in order to rescue those human beings,” Noman said.
The turmoil stemming from the Arab Spring has deeply unsettled the Middle East’s Christian population.
Syria’s Sunni majority makes up the backbone of the opposition, and minorities such as Christians have generally stuck to the sidelines, in part out of fears that they will be marginalized — or even targeted — if Sunnis take over.
Assad and the ruling elite also belong to a minority sect, the Alawites. Assad’s regime always pushed a secular ideology, which was seen as giving minorities a measure of protection.
Christians hold senior positions in the state, although some have joined the opposition, including prominent writer Michel Kilo and a top member of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Council, George Sabara, who were jailed by Assad for dissent. The most senior Christian government official is Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, a former army general.
Homs, Syria’s third largest city, has been one of the hardest hit regions since the uprising against Assad’s regime began in March 2011. Rebels control several neighborhoods, sparking intense attacks by government troops over the past two weeks.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called on Syria’s government and rebel groups last week to allow it to reach trapped civilians and evacuate the wounded and sick.
“Hundreds of civilians are stuck in the old city of Homs, unable to leave and find refuge in safer areas, because of the ongoing armed confrontations,” said the group’s head of operations for the region, Beatrice Megevand-Roggo.
The rebels have controlled the Christian neighborhoods of Hamidiyeh and Bustan Diwan since early February. Sporadic clashes between rebels and troops have forced tens of thousands of Christians to flee the neighborhoods to a relatively safe area known as the Valley of the Christians, just outside the city.
But those who remain say three attempts to evacuate them so far have failed despite efforts by Sunni clerics and tribal leaders to help.
Al-Jamal, who took part in three rounds of failed negotiations, said there would be a fourth attempt but he felt “hopeless.”
Al-Jamal said that in past attempts, the army had agreed to a two-hour truce to allow the mediators to evacuate the besieged people, but they were blocked by the rebels.
A Christian from Homs said that two of his relatives were killed by shrapnel this month. The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the two were buried inside the old cemetery in Hamidiyeh because it was not possible to take them to the new cemetery outside the city because of the violence.
On Tuesday of last week, Syria’s government said it was ready to act on a UN call to evacuate civilians trapped in Homs for more than a week, but blamed rebels for obstructing efforts to get them out.
Maj. Gen. Robert Mood, the Norwegian chief of the UN observer mission in the country, has demanded that all warring parties in the conflict allow safe passage for women, children, and sick people trying to get out.
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 percent of them will leave,” he said.