BEIRUT -- Much of the Christian population of the besieged Syrian city of Qusair has abandoned the town after an “ultimatum” from the rebel military chief there, reports Agenzia Fides, the official Vatican news agency.
The ultimatum expired Thursday, the agency reported, adding that most of the city’s 10,000 Christians have fled the city, situated in the battleground province of Homs.
"Some mosques in the city have relaunched the message, announcing from the minarets: 'Christians must leave Quasir,' " read the report from the Vatican agency, which has sought to document the parlous plight of Syria’s ancient Christian community.
Qusair has been the site of intense clashes for months between armed rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. The strategic city is close to the Lebanese border and has been a smuggling hub for arms and medicines destined for rebel forces in the embattled city of Homs, about 15 miles to the northeast, which has already seen its large Christian population flee, the Vatican agency reported.
A Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, had recently remained in Qusair for a week, “praying and fasting for peace in the midst of the conflict,” the Vatican report said.
The reasons for the ultimatum ordering Christians to leave Qusair “remain unclear,” the Vatican agency said. “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.”
Christians represent about 10% of Syria’s population, but their status in Syrian conflict zones has become more and more tenuous. Many Christians remain loyal to Assad because his government has been tolerant of religious minorities. Many fear an Islamist takeover could result in the kind of repression that occurred in neighboring Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein — who, like Assad, was a secular autocrat. Militants in post-Hussein Iraq bombed churches, torched Christian shops and forced hundreds of thousands of Christians to flee to Syria, long regarded as safe for Christians.
Syrian opposition spokesmen have repeatedly said that Syrian rebels do not target Christians or other minorities and believe in creating a democratic society once Assad is ousted. Leading the rebellion are members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who have long chaffed under the rule of the Assad clan, members of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Assad leadership has maintained power for more than four decades in part by forging alliances with minorities, as well as with important Sunni sectors.
The Vatican agency cited “sources” who said that extremist Islamist groups in the ranks of the Qusair rebels “consider Christians 'infidels,' confiscate goods, commit brief executions and are ready to start a 'sectarian war.' "
Families fleeing Qusair have gone to nearby villages and to Damascus, the capital, the agency report said. “Some families, very few, sought valiantly to stay in their home town,” reported Agenzia Fides, “but no one knows what fate they will suffer.”
--Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: New recruits to the Free Syrian Army participate in a parade last week in Qusair, Syria, near the city of Homs. Credit: AFP/Getty Images