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.
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. 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.
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.' "