Published: 15:00 GMT Daylight Time - Wednesday 13 June 2012
Thousands of Christians flee Syrian city amid “ultimatum” reports
Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Syria
Thousands of Christians have fled the besieged Syrian city of al-Qusair after reportedly being given an ultimatum to leave by an opposition military chief there, a threat echoed by the mosques.
Most of the western city’s Christian residents have left, and some of the mosques in al-Qusair are said to have given last week the thousand or so who remain a deadline to vacate. Two Christian leaders, who were among those fleeing the city, said that they heard the following message from the minarets: “Christians must leave al-Qusair within six days, ending Friday (8 June).”
An earlier ultimatum had allegedly been issued by a military chief of the armed opposition, Abdel Salam Harba. Local sources said that Islamic extremists within the opposition consider Christians “infidels”, confiscate their belongings and carry out mass executions.
Opponents of the government have denied ordering Christians out of al-Qusair. In a statement said to be from the rebel leadership in the city, issued on Monday (11 June), they said that they had “lived together with our beloved Christian brothers and sisters for decades, working together and living alongside one another”.
They added that most of the Christian families, along with Muslim families, had fled al-Qusair around two months ago owing to shelling by government militia.
The city is an extremely dangerous place for those who remain. A church minister, Atallah Ibrahim Bitar, was shot dead while reportedly taking food to people forced into hiding by a week-long bombardment.
Al-Qusair, which is around 15 miles from another key battleground of Homs, has been the site of intense clashes between President Assad’s troops and opposition forces for months. Almost the entirety of the 50,000-60,000 Christian population of Homs has fled as a result of heavy fighting there.
Christians from al-Qusair have gone to nearby villages or to stay with relatives and friends in the capital, Damascus.
Whether or not they were ordered out, it is clear that they no longer felt safe in their homes, and like their counterparts in Homs, have been forced to flee as a result of the ongoing conflict.
On Tuesday (12 June), the UN’s head of peacekeeping said that Syria was in a state of civil war – the first time a UN official has used this term to describe the conflict.
Christians are particularly vulnerable in anti-government strongholds because they are assumed to be supporters of President Assad, having enjoyed considerable freedom under his regime.
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