Syria: Bishop fears mass exodus of Christians on a par with Iraq

A senior bishop in Syria has warned that Christianity in his country may suffer the same terrible fate as in neighbouring Iraq.

Speaking from northern Syria, the bishop, who asked not to be named for security reasons, said that "his most important" concern as a Christian leader was the danger of a mass exodus of faithful as happened in Iraq after 2003 following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The bishop's comments, made today (Tuesday 28th February), come amid widespread fears that Christians will be among the worst to suffer if President Bashar al-Assad falls and power is seized by Islamist rebel groups.

Meantime, some Church organisations have reported from centres of conflict, such as the city of Homs, that up to 80 percent of Christians have fled in part as a result of an upsurge in religiously-motivated violence.

The bishop told Aid to the Church in Need: "We in Syria do not want to become like Iraq [where] we have lost so many Christians because of war and devastation."

He added: "Of course people want to stay but the insecurity and violence encourages them to leave."

While saying he had no statistics on recent Christian emigration from Syria, the bishop underlined his concern of a mass exodus similar to the one in Iraq where Christians fell quickly from five percent of the approximately 22 million population in 1997 to less than 300,000 in the years following the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Many thousands of Iraqi Christians sought sanctuary in Syria which today has 2.5 million faithful who have traditionally prospered in one of the most liberal and tolerant countries in the Middle East.

The bishop said: "We Christians want to stay in Syria and live peacefully and with everybody and continue our presence serving our country and our people."

The bishop's comments follow reports of earlier this month which quote Ignatius Joseph III, Patriarch of the Syrian Catholic Church, warning Assad's downfall might provoke disaster for Christians, with Islamic terrorists "targeting" Christians.

In his interview today, the Syrian bishop went on to say poor people were desperate for medicine and food after prices shot up dramatically.

He said many people could not even afford basics such as rice, cooking oil, sugar and tea.

The bishop added that the Church was helping people in need adding: "We have to support poor families in most need of food and medicine."

The bishop went on to resist calls for foreign intervention in Syria, saying the country was capable of resolving its problems internally.

He said: "We do not accept foreign intervention. Action of this kind is against every international law. We are able to organise ourselves and continue our life."

His comments follow those of Lebanon's Archbishop Paul El-Sayeh who in an interview with Aid to the Church in Need last week called on all sides in Syria to put down their arms in a bid to prevent the conflict escalating into full-scale civil war.

The bishop in Syria said that in his region in the north of the country, the situation was calm and that life was "carrying on as normal" in spite of attacks earlier this month.

He added: "The attacks put fear into the hearts of people but now the situation is calmer with people going to work and doing what they always do."

John Pontifex

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