JERUSALEM – Christians in Syria live in fear of a repeat of persecution like what was seen in Iraq, said officials of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine.

“The same pattern like in Iraq is re-emerging, as Islamic militants are now kidnapping and killing Christians in Syria,” said Mr Issam Bishara, vice president of the Pontifical Mission and regional director for Lebanon and Syria.

“Christians are concerned about the repercussions of the events taking place in the region. They fear that the experiences of Iraq and Lebanon – which took place against the backdrop of a civil war – could play out again in their own lands. These concerns haunt the Syrian Christians.”

“We lost Christians in Iraq; if we lose Chirstians in Syria, what will happen to the Middle East?” said Mr Ra’ed Bahou, the Pontifical Mission’s regional director for Jordan and Iraq. “Christians are leaving the region, and we have to work to reduce this loss. Time is not with us. Syria is the last castle of Christianity in the Middle East. If they start emigrating from Syria, it is the beginning of the end of Christianity in this area.”

On March 7, Mr Bahou said that there were no official statistics, but an estimated 200 Christians were among the recent wave of Syrian refugees entering Jordan. He said many of those same refugees earlier had fled Iraq for Syria.

“They are refugees from one country to another. It is everywhere now, not just in Jordan. Also in Lebanon and Turkey. This population movement is also creating a changing Middle East,” Mr Bahou said.

In an email interview, Mr Bishara said more than 200 Christians have been killed in the violent confrontations between government soldiers and rebels in the Syrian city of Homs.

In addition, he said, Christian residents of the Homs neighbourhood of Hamidiya have been stopped from leaving the city by anti-government forces. He said they were forced into the mosque, where they have been used as human shields by rebel forces as protection against attack by government troops.

Mr Bahou said Syria has an estimated 1.5 million Christians, and many of them are concerned about what their situation will be like in a future Syria should the current Bashar al-Assad regime collapse. As they were in Egypt, the minority Christian community in Syria is regarded as allied with the ruling secular regime which, although it is a dictatorship, ensured freedom of religion. Christians fear retribution from anti-government and extremist Islamic forces, Mr Bahou said. - CNS

CNS photo: Boy holds remains of mortar in Syrian neighbourhood.

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