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|Christian Population||1.17 million|
No updated figures about the exodus of Christians are available
Christians and the Struggle for Religious Freedom
A vital booklet about religious freedom to inform, inspire and challenge you. Includes an explanation of what religious freedom means and examples of the challenges Christians face in our Persecuted and Forgotten? 2012 update.Get the book or download your copy
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Syria - Country profile
Deepening crisis in Syria has caused widespread fear and indeed panic at a time of protracted violence.
More than 15 months into the conflict, nearly 20,000 people lie dead. Intensifying gunfire and bomb attacks have pushed the country to the verge of anarchy.
In late July 2012, UN reports claimed that within 48 hours up to 30,000 people had fled to neighbouring Lebanon. This followed fighting in the capital, Damascus, which went on for at least a week. The Arab League has added to international pressure, calling on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The president’s powerbase suffered a severe blow when senior officials – generals – including the defence minister were killed in an attack on government security headquarters in Damascus.
Christians fearful of "disaster"
Syria’s Bishop Antoine Audo warned of “disaster” for Christians in Aleppo and Damascus if fighters fought their way through to the cities’ Christian quarters.
He said: “What we are afraid of is that in a situation of anarchy, armed people will come into Christian areas. If they come around our churches and our bishoprics, it will be disastrous for us.”
The bishop warned of a repeat of the catastrophe in the city of Homs where serious attacks on the Christians led almost all of them – more than 120,000 – to flee for towns and villages outside the city.
There, Churches were desecrated and buildings looted with groups loyal to the attacking forces occupying abandoned Christian homes.
Aid to the Church in Need's UK director Neville Kyrke-Smith, who visited Lebanon soon after the atrocities in Homs, reported speaking to priests and others with close contact with the city.
He described one priest telling him: “Once the fighters went in, there was nothing the Christians could do. Where could they hide? Where could they go? This was no accident. Somebody planned it.”
Bishops have underlined how Christians are vulnerable to attack. In a message released in mid-July 2012, Patriarch Gregory III Laham, of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Syria, said: “Christians are… defenceless. They are the group most liable to exploitation, extortion, kidnapping, torture and elimination.”
The violence triggered a mass exodus of Christians from conflict centres.
With the exodus ongoing from Syria, many now fear that the country will go the way of Iraq, where numbers of Christians have plummeted from 800,000 to barely 165,000 within the last decade.
Emergency aid programme for those fleeing conflict
Amid reports of people in Syria desperate to find sanctuary and help, Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo has worked with Caritas to mastermind an emergency aid programme providing basic food, water and medicine.
Senior church sources spoke of people in desperate need, having left their homes taking with them “nothing more than the clothes they were standing up in”.
Among those Christians fleeing were those who only a few years later had sought sanctuary in Syria having escaped violence and persecution in Iraq.
Meanwhile, as the humanitarian problems worsens in Syria, organisations including Aid to the Church in Need have provided emergency assistance.
The charity has given more than £100,000 within the first six months of 2012. This aid has prioritised help for people from Homs living in towns and villages outside the city, especially in the region known as the Valley of the Christians”.
Listen to Bishop Audo's talk at our 2012 Westminster Event
With the conflict now centring on major cities such as Damascus and Aleppo, Christian leaders spoke of the people’s trauma and fear.
Bishop Audo described how people were so afraid they had fled conflict zones and were “sleeping in parks and gardens of people’s homes” and were too afraid to come to church for fear of being attacked.
From Damascus, Maronite Archbishop Samir Nassar of Damascus wrote on 20 July: “I write to you while I am still alive and while internet access is possible. Fighting reached the capital on Tuesday morning…
Destruction is enormous. What a Calvary. There is fighting in the streets and spreads from one quarter to another. Impossible to sleep. For 16 months, Damascus was spared the violence which tore apart the other cities of Syria. Now it is our turn to suffer and die.”
Christian leaders determined to continue as bridge-builders
In spite of all the difficulties, Christian leaders vowed to continue playing their role as peace makers. Neville Kyrke-Smith underlined the Church’s essential part to play as “bridge-builder” and Patriarch Gregorios stated: “Christians are the group calling for dialogue, reconciliation, peace and unity among all the sons and daughters of the same homeland.
"This is the rarest kind of talk that many do not wish to hear. We Christians, to whom was entrusted the Gospel of Peace, feel called to further that very same peace.”
Emergency aid for Christians fleeing Homs
Up to 50,000 Christians – almost the entire Christian population of the city – were forced to flee Homs amid fighting between the government and rebels there. The city had been home to one of the largest Christian communities in Syria. Thanks to you, we have offered them emergency help.
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Help for bomb victims in Aleppo
As violence engulfs Syria, Aid to the Church in Need is helping families caught up in a car bomb explosion in March 2012, which targeted the Christian quarter of Aleppo, close to the Franciscan-run Church of St Bonaventure.
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Violence and suffering in Syria
January 2012: A secret report stated that Christians were being murdered and kidnapped as part of the violence spreading to key regions of Syria. The source, who could not be named for safety reasons, said the spate of attacks had taken place over three weeks after Christmas, and were motivated by factors including religious intolerance. According to the report, two Christian men, one aged 28, and a 37-year-old father with a pregnant wife, were kidnapped by rebels in separate incidents and were later found dead. The first was found hanged and the other was reportedly cut to pieces and thrown in a river. Four others were kidnapped and abducted – their captors threatening to kill them too. The reports came amid claims that 100 Christians had died in the anti-government unrest. (Source: Barnabas Fund, 18 January 2012)
February 2012: A senior Syrian bishop said he feared a mass exodus of Christians from the country, on a par with the situation seen in Iraq. We in Syria do not want to become like Iraq [where] we have lost so many Christians because of war and devastation... Of course people want to stay but the insecurity and violence encourages them to leave."
March 2012: Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo described the crisis facing 50,000 or more Christians who had fled their homes in Homs after reports of "ethnic cleansing" by militants. Other reports suggested Christians had left their homes voluntarily, in effect making way for others to occupy them to shelter from the violence. Speaking from Aleppo, Bishop Audo told Aid to the Church in Need: "The people we are helping are very afraid. The Christians don't know what their future will hold. They are afraid they will not get their homes back. It is very important that we do whatever we can to help the people." Read more
April 2012: Fr Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan Custodian of the Holy Land, said he was opposed to foreign military intervention in Syria. "The West should certainly apply diplomatic and political pressure, but avoid the use of military force," he said. "Syria is currently in a kind of civil war. It’s not called that, but that’s what it is. And the Christians are caught between all fronts." Read more
July 2012: Aid to the Church in Need's Middle East expert Fr Andrzej Halemba said that Western news agencies had misrepresented the conflict in Syria. He said: “Some Western media reports are received there with great outrage. People there feel exploited and deceived by international media. They complain that the West is only pursuing its own interests.” Read more
July 2012: Aid to the Church in Need joined bishops from Syria and the Council for European Bishops' Conferences in calling for urgent prayer for Syria and the Middle East. The plea came as reports suggested 30,000 had fled for neighbouring Lebanon in the space of 30,000, with fighting intensifying, especially in the capital, Damascus. Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo reported that Christians there and in Damascus were terrified of being targeted in the fighting. Read more
August 2012: A Damascus priest said people in the city were suffering “the depths of fear” amid gunfire and bombs, and that there was a shortage of bread, gas and electricity. Read more
August 2012: A priest in Damscus said there were some one million internally displaced refugees fleeing the conflict, with the Church trying to find ways to help as many as possible. Read more
August 2012: Patriarch Boutros Bechara Rai, the head of the Maronite Church, warned that Syria's civil war was treatening to spill over into Lebanon, with Sunnis and Alawites in north Lebanon already having clashed. Read more
August 2012: Aid to the Church in Need paid out almost £40,000 in emergency aid for 12,000 people trapped in their village by the ongoing conflict. Read more
October 2012: Fr Fadi Haddad, 43, an Orthodox priest in the city of Qatana was kidnapped and murdered. His naked body was discovered on the side of a road outside Damascus. His eyes had been gouged out and his body mutilated. Fr Haddad had gone missing after setting off by car to negotiate the release of a Christian dentist who had been kidnapped a few days earlier. Read more
January 2013: Aid to the Church in Need made an emergency aid grant of £130,000 to help refugees both in Syria and in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, where many have fled. Read more
Last updated: 25/03/2013