Reports of “ethnic cleansing” of Christians in the Syrian city of Homs have begun circulating in the aftermath of an assault on the city by the Syrian army, which drove out most armed elements of the Syrian opposition in mid-March. The Syrian Orthodox Church, which represents 60 percent of the country’s Christian minority, alleges that militant armed Islamists have managed to expel 90 percent of Christians from Homs and have confiscated their homes by force.
According to Orthodox Metropolitan sources, the militants went door to door in the Homs neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, forcing Christians to flee without giving them a chance to take their belongings. Church leaders say this “ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” is being carried out by members of the Brigade Faruq. According to church sources, the Faruq Brigade is run by armed elements of Al Qaeda and various Wahhabi groups and includes mercenaries from Libya and Iraq. In Homs, according to a local source, there are only about 1,000 Christians left, living in hiding and fear in a neighborhood that “is caught between two fires,” as fighting continues between army and rebels.
The warnings issued by the Orthodox Church accompany new concerns from the New York-based Human Rights Watch about the deportment of the Free Syrian Army, army deserters and rebel fighters loosely organized under the opposition Syrian National Council. Western media have frequently noted the numerous flagrant human rights abuses perpetrated by Syrian government forces during the yearlong clampdown on internal opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Now Human Rights Watch warns of similar abuses by the irregular forces of Syria’s opposition. In an open letter to the leaders of Syria’s opposition, Human Rights Watch noted increasing evidence “of kidnappings, the use of torture and executions by armed Syrian opposition members.” The group urged resistance leaders to “ensure that all opposition members refrain from engaging in these unlawful practices.”
Regarding the reports of ethnic cleansing, the Vicar Apostolic of Aleppo, Bishop Giuseppe Nazzaro, O.F.M., said: “We have no sources to confirm this information directly, but we can say that these relationships are beginning to break down the wall of silence built up to now by the press worldwide.” He said, “In this situation Islamist and terrorist movements are making headway.”
The vicar apostolic recalled with concern some recent episodes: “Last Sunday, a car packed with TNT exploded in Aleppo in the vicinity of the school of the Franciscan fathers. By a miracle a massacre of children was avoided at the Center of Catechesis of the Church of St. Bonaventure only because the Franciscans, sensing danger, made the children leave 15 minutes before the usual time. Other bombs exploded in Damascus. These are bad signs for religious minorities.”
In Damascus the apostolic nuncio to Syria, Archbishop Mario Zenari, said that a March 21 statement unanimously approved by the U.N. Security Council on the conflict in Syria “should be fully supported, as it is really urgent to put an end to violence.” The United Nation’s six-point plan calls for an end to troop movements and the use of heavy weapons, the progressive implementation of a cease-fire, the distribution of humanitarian aid, the release of those detained arbitrarily, the free movement of journalists and the beginning of political dialogue.