SYRIA – 66 % of Syrian Christians gone, Chaldean Catholic bishop says
Antoine Audo, a Chaldean Catholic bishop in Aleppo has warned that two-thirds of all Christians in the war-torn country have left since the conflict began in March 2011, which means close to a million believers have fled the country. He said there were close to 1.5 million Christians in Syria in 2011, but five years later there are now only around 500,000 left. Proportionately, this figure is far higher than the exodus figures for the Syrian population as a whole.
Looking at the situation for Syrian Christians as a whole, the exodus figures are likely to be higher even than those suggested by Bishop Audo who said just before Easter that two-thirds of Syria’s Christians had left the country since the conflict began. Audo revealed that only around 40,000 of the once 160,000-plus Christian community in the city of Aleppo remain, and they have had to deal with mass bombings and a variety of other hardships over the years. “You cannot imagine the dangers that we face every day,” Audo said.
Christians and millions of other Syrian civilians have left the country to escape the ongoing civil war, which is being waged between the government of President Bashar al-Assad, various Islamic rebel groups trying to take out his regime, and the Islamic State terror organization, which joined the battle for control in 2014. Audo said that while wealthier Christians have been able to flee, “the middle classes have become poor and the poor have become miserable.”
Until the war broke out in spring 2011, Aleppo was home to the largest number of Christians, but their numbers have now dwindled from 200,000 to close to 35,000 – a decline of 85 per cent. Looking at the situation for Syrian Christians as a whole, the exodus figures are likely to be higher even than those suggested by Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo who said just before Easter that two-thirds of Syria’s Christians had left the country since the conflict began.
The second-largest Christian community in Syria before the war was in Homs, but today Church leaders said the numbers had slumped by an astonishing 95 per cent – 40,000 down to barely 2,000. Even in regions where the Syrian government had largely succeeded in the struggle against militants, the decline was still very marked.
It is now almost two years since the Assad regime won its first battle against extremist groups, retaking the mountain-top shrine town of Maaloula, north-east of the capital, Damascus. In spite of the heightened government security there, the town’s Melkite priest, Fr Toufic Eid, told us that only a third of Christians had returned. He explained that potential homecomers were discouraged by an absence of jobs, the slow rebuilding of homes and a breakdown of trust in Muslim neighbours, who they said had collaborated with the extremists in their effort to take and hold the town.
The Damascus-based Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III of Antioch – leader of one of the largest Christian communities in Syria – movingly describes Christians in Syria. as the successors of the first Apostles who arrived in the country soon after Pentecost Day in Jerusalem, and whose cause was brilliantly taken up by their one-time persecutor, St Paul. However, the sad reality is that the future of Christianity in Syria can only be guaranteed if there is a quick victory over Islamic extremists and a swift return of law and order.
While there are many regions that have seen a massive reduction in the numbers of Christians, there are others that have seen an upsurge – places of relative sanctuary which have taken in tens of thousands of displaced faithful. One of these is Tartous, on the eastern Mediterranean coast. Maronite Archbishop Antoine Chbeir said numbers there had grown from 150,000 to 500,000, though not all of these are displaced Christians.
Other Christians have sought sanctuary in Damascus from as far as Aleppo, the epicentre of the conflict. Yet even the Damascus suburb of Jaramanah has suffered from sporadic bombing from opposition groups seeking to destabilise Assad’s power base in the Syrian capital. Such violence and instability explains why so many of the displaced in Damascus are seeking to leave the country as soon as possible.