Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Christian refugees and Casualties

This report is the latest in our series on Syria. Today’s report is in two parts:
1) Refugees
 2) Casualties.

Refugees – special report on the Christian community

The United Nations distinguishes between Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and refugees, determining that only those that cross international boundaries are refugees. At the NCF we use the traditional and generally understood English usage, calling all those driven from their homes by war refugees whether or not they have crossed international boundaries.
The following report is a special report on the Christian refugees of Syria. We had suggested in previous reports that 90% of the Christians of Homs had fled. We were challenged by one of our members for using anecdotal evidence that could not be substantiated. We said we would do our best to do something better sourced. In that we have failed. The following is also a largely anecdotal and eclectic report, but we believe that if you read it through you will be better placed to make your own judgement as to a reasonably correct picture.
The number of refugees keeps growing day by day. The line in last week’s report that was questioned was, “NCF sources in the Syrian Christian community suggest that 90% of the Christian population of Homs has already fled (many to the capital) to escape rebel persecution. Christians from nearby cities have also been persecuted.”
Our first port of call on checking on this was with credible Western journalists working regularly in Syria. Unfortunately, as so often with journalists, our main source does not wish to be quoted by name. But we regard him as very reliable. He said, when asked to verify the statement that 90% of the Christians had left Homs: “Well, I haven't heard much of them going to Lebanon, mainly to Damascus or other villages. But it is true according to our information that around 90 per cent of the Christians have left Homs, afraid of everything: the shelling of the city, the regime, the opposition-fighters.

“The reports about forced expulsion by salafis (as reported by Fides news agency) who are said to have called from the minarets that all Christians should leave, are propaganda. Jesuits, who recently left Homs and whom we met, said nothing of such kind had happened. Some Jesuits are still in their monastery in the old city of Homs, taking care of (mainly Sunni) injured and homeless people.

“Most people have left Homs, also around 70 - 80 per cent of the Sunnis, around 70 per cent of the Alawites; except for some Alawite areas and the mixed area al-War, the city is basically empty, only fighters are there - from both sides.”

Two sides to the story

It seems that there are two sides to the story of Christians in Syria.
First, there are those who believe that since the uprising started this was a religious conflict and that one of the main goals of the opposition forces and rebels was to get rid of the Christians. According to them, the reason why most of the Christians were forced to flee their homes was because of the ethnic cleansing perpetrated by the Islamist rebels.
And secondly, those who disregard this information and also blame the government forces.
Christians in the city of Homs have been greatly affected by the crisis in Syria, as have Christians in other parts of the country, many of them being caught in the crossfire between Islamist insurgents and the government. With the memory of the plight of the Iraqi Christians fresh in their minds, the Christians of Syria have been urgently looking for a way out of the conflict. From Homs alone, 135,000 Christians are reported to have moved to the relatively safe areas of Damascus and Lattakia.
The Christian population as a whole has kept out of the conflict, but is more fearful of a Sunni government coming to power, than of Assad’s government staying on. Assad’s government is viewed as having given some sort of protection to minorities.
These fears are not entirely unfounded; NCF sources have given us disturbing reports of Christian Jewellers in Hama being taken hostage by Sunni rebels, and not released until they have paid 20 million Syrian Lyre (20 million Syrian pounds is £200,000 sterling or $300,000). We also have reliable reports from many sources of Syrian Christians being threatened by gunmen and ordered to keep their businesses closed. Reports published in the Irish Independent  claim Syrian Christians in Homs to have been so intimidated, and so many of them to have left that Easter festivities were not able to take place in 2012.
However, conflicting reports have emerged as to the scale of the Christian problems within Syria. A report filed  in Fides,  The  Vatican News Agency, quotes ‘some members of the Syrian Orthodox Church’, who declare that there is an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Syrian Christians in Homs, which in turn has forced approximately 90% of the Christians in Homs to flee (the statistic which we had included in an earlier report). This ethnic cleansing has reportedly included attacks on Christians within the Christian neighbourhoods of Homs. This version of events is countered by other sources such asSyrian Christians for Democracy, a non profit organization, which confirms that Syrian Christians were indeed forced to flee their homes in Homs, due to members of the Free Syrian Army seizing Christian buildings for strategic control of Homs. The SCD then claims, after speaking to a Lieutenant in the Free Syrian Army, that any claim of violence committed towards Christians in Homs is unfounded. Aleppo, according to the SCD is another story entirely, with Churches being targeted and bombed, however the identity of the culprits is not made clear.

Mother Agnes Mariam de la Croix from the Monastery of St James the Mutilated

 Further contrasting reports have come to light after the highly controversial reports of Mother Agnes Mariam were broadcast in 2011, when Mother Agnes declared the western media to be broadcasting lies, and she spoke of very violent acts being committed against Christians in Homs, at the hands of the FSA. However most commentators do not regard Mother Agnes as a reliable source. Crucially Mother Agnes insists that violence is not only coming from the government. The FSA are forcing Christians to flee from Homs, and are responsible for the Houla Massacre. These claims remain controversial.

According to ACN, Aid to the Church in Need (quote): “This exodus, occurring mainly over the last six weeks, is part of what respected news sources describe as an “ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” by militant Islamic groups with links to Al Qaeda. Islamists have reportedly gone from house to house in the Homs neighbourhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan, forcing Christians to leave without the opportunity to collect their belongings. Until now, the city has been home to one of Syria’s largest Christian populations, and Church sources have said the faithful have borne the brunt of the violence, escaping to outlying villages, many of them fleeing into the mountains 50 kilometres outside the city. According to other reports, Christians have left their homes voluntarily, in effect making way for others to occupy them to shelter themselves from the violence.”

According to rescuechristians (quote): There is “an ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” by members of the a militant Islamist outfit, Brigade Faruq, which has links with al-Qaida. The militants have expelled 90 percent of Christians in Homs, which has faced the brunt of violence related to the uprising, and grabbed their homes. They went door to door in the neighborhoods of Hamidiya and Bustan al-Diwan forcing Christians to flee without giving them the chance to take their belongings.”


According to Syrian Christians for democracy, an organisation dedicated to reporting on the violence perpetrated by the Assad government against its people, be they Christian or Muslim (quote):   “In regards to the story published in “Agenzia Fides” on 21st March 2012 about the Christians of Homs who were forced to flee their homes, firsthand accounts have clarified that the perpetrators were members of the Syrian army who overtook the Christian neighborhood near Al-Hamidiye street and commandeered a number of Christian-resident buildings for strategic control over the city. The Christians were indeed forced to flee their homes, but rumors of the violence against them by terrorist groups or otherwise members of the opposition are both unverified and noxious. To further investigate these claims, SCD contacted the “Al-Farooq” brigade of the Free Syrian Army, currently stationed in the outskirts of the city of Homs. The brigade’s spokesperson, Lieutenant Abdel Ruzzak Tlas, was decisive as he indicated on the city map exactly how his men retreated from the “Al-Hamidiye” district weeks before the alleged attacks on the Christians happened. According to Lieutenant Tlas, the “Al-Farooq” brigade left that area when it could no longer defend the remaining civilians from the incoming military onslaught. “The neighborhood has been since a playground for Assad’s troops”, Lieutenant Tlas added. He ended by promising the Christians of Homs that their homes and properties will be returned to their possession once his brigade liberates the city from Assad’s men.

NCF note: The Al Farooq Brigade does however have the most fearsome reputation of all the rebel brigades and is noted for being ruthless.
According to CNEWA, Catholic Near East Welfare Association (quote): “As for the Christian population: according to both Sister Marie Claude Naddaf, the superior general of the Good Shepherd congregation and Father Eliane Nasrallah, a good friend of CNEWA and the Greek Catholic parish priest of Al Qaa village (a Lebanese village located on the eastern border with Syria), the majority of the Christian families of Homs and the surrounding villages left during the escalations and found refuge in three areas:
1.The Valley of Christians  around 60 kms from Homs on the Syrian side of the border and on the international road between Homs and Tartous, which is a popular tourist site in western Syria, close to the Lebanese border. Most people in the area are Christians (Greek Orthodox)

2.The coastal city of Tartous (inside Syria). The Sisters of the Good Shepherd screened around 150 Syrian Christian families who escaped from Homs and found refuge in that area in addition to around 50 families who found shelter in Damascus.
3.The Lebanese village of Al Qaa. Father Nasrallah says that at present 40 Christian families found refuge at their relatives’ homes within his parish. After visiting a majority of them, he reported that all of them are needy and living in very difficult conditions.

And Another Perspective

Another report from one of the NCF team follows. We are leaving these notes largely unedited so that you may make your own judgement:
The actions of the rebels, notably the FSA, against Christians in Syria have not been greatly covered by the media. The reports from Christian sources in Syria differ slightly from the standard account carried in the Western media. Certainly, it is usually the Assad government and its supporters who are accused of violent actions not the leaders of the revolution. 
However 90 percent of the Christian citizens in Homs were displaced by force of arms at the hands of Islamic extremists. The militants went from house to house in Hamidiya and Orchard Court, and Christians were forced to leave without giving them the opportunity to take their property.
Sectarianism has taken hold since the beginning of the civil war. The Economist magazine blame this in part on the government exploiting minorities by drawing them into the army and security forces, causing the opposition to view Christians as being in alliance with the government. Homs had been home to Syria’s largest Christian population. 
Christians, who make up around 10% of the population, have been split by the uprising. Many have sided with the government and some with the opposition, while the fearful majority have remained on the fence. This has caused divisions in some mixed communities. Hopefully this violence can be stemmed so the civil war doesn't eclipse an uprising that had been calling for reform.
The Homs crisis has prompted increased fears that Islamists are gaining influence in the region, filling the power vacuum left when decades-old regimes across the Middle East were overthrown at the start of the Arab Spring. Certainly these fears have been enhanced by the election of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mursi, as Egyptian President.
Syria may suffer the same fate as Iraq where the number of Christians has plummeted from 1.4 million in the late 1980s, to a low of approximately 300,000 today.
NCF note: Ironically many of Iraq’s Christians had fled to Syria where Iraqi Christian refugees number some 750,000 (about half the Iraq refugee total in Syria). Some of these are now returning to Iraq (though not many so far).
You will note that the forgoing is drawn from multiple sources that often repeat one another. But the NCF also has strong links to the Christian community in Damascus. We may not be able to say much with certain with regard to the plight of the Christian community – but we do stand by our original assertion – 90% of the Christians of Homs have fled the city.

 Rebel Casualties

The numbers of reported rebel casualties tend to be lower than the reported pro governmentcasualties. This is in part due to rebel use of guerrilla tactics, and also in part due to deliberate under-reporting. For the following breakdown we have drawn on three sources: the London based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights; the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria; and Sana, the Syrian government newsagency.

MONDAY 18TH JUNE (Total 11)
Homs: 2 rebel fighters died during clashes in al-Qusayr, Reef Homs: 1 rebel fighter was killed during clashes on the outskirts of Rastan. Deir Ezzor: 2 rebels were shot including a rebel commander killed by the intense explosion in the town of Muhasan and another rebel commander killed in clashes. Daraa province: 3 rebel fighters were killed by an ambush set up for them on their way back from a battle in Tafs. Damascus: 3 “defected soldiers” killed in Ein Tarma, Reef Dimashq, in clashes and summary executions.

Homs: 3 rebel fighters were killed in the city, one of them was a leader, they died in the Khaldiya and Jouret Al-Shiah neighbourhoods. Idlib province: a body of a rebel fighter, from the Keli village, Reef Idlib, was found. He had disappeared 2 days ago under mysterious conditions. Daraa province: 1 rebel died during clashes. Hasakeh: 1 non civilian shot. Latakia: 1 non civilian shot

Latakia province: 5 fighers from an armed opposition group were killed during violent clashes with regime forces in Jabal Alakrad, reef Latakia. Hama: 1 non civilian shot. Homs: 1 non civilian shot. Damascus: 1 non civilian shot

Idlib province: 2 rebel fighters killed, during clashes in Irmnaz, Reef Idlib. Homs: 5 non civilian casualties. Damascus: 3 non civilian casualties. Daraa: 7 non civilian casualties

FRIDAY 22ND JUNE (Total 6)
Homs province: 2 rebel fighters were killed during clashes near the Baba Amr neighbourhood. Daraa:A fighter was killed during clashes in the Inkhel town. Aleppo: A fighter was killed during clashes in the Albab city. Damascus: 2 non civilian casualties

Hama: A rebel fighter was killed during clashes in the Tariq Halab neighbourhood of Hama. Aleppo province: 2 rebel fighters were killed by clashes and bombardment in the city of al-Bab, Reef Aleppo. Latakia province: 1 rebel fighter was killed during clashes in Jabal al-Akrad. Homs: 5 non civilian casualties. Damascus: 1 non civilian casualty

SUNDAY 24TH JUNE (Total 10)
Homs province: 2 fighters were shot in the Baba Amr neighborhood during clashes. 3 fighters were shot in the Alsetin, Albayada and Alkrabis Street. Deir Ezzor province: 2 fighters were killed by bombardment and gun shots. Latakia province: 2 fighters killed, one of them died of wounds he received yesterday during clashes, the other was killed during clashes in Jabal Alakrad, Reef Latakia. Daraa: 1 non civilian casualty
MONDAY 25TH JUNE (7 killed)
Idlib: 4 killed. Deir Ezzor: 3 killed in a clash with authorities, including rebel leader Saleh al-Ghbeir

Government Casualties

We have generally used Syrian government for the following casualty figures as they tend to be reliable when it comes to their own dead. These figures include paramilitary dead like police and security forces. They do not include Shabiha, and there are unconfirmed reports from the Syrian Observatory that 26 Shabiha were killed in an action on Friday 22nd June. You will note that there are dates on which “no casualties are reported” on the lists below. That does not mean no one was killed that day, but that that days dead have been carried into the subsequent day’s tally because Syrian government casualty lists correspond with funerals and there were no funerals that day.
Tuesday 19thJune
16 deaths in the Damascus countryside, Aleppo, Homs and Dera’a
Wednesday 20th June
No reported casualties
Thursday 21st June
19 deaths in Damascus and its countryside, Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo and Idlib
Friday 22nd June
No reported casualties
Saturday 23rd of June
47 deaths in the Damascus countryside, Aleppo, Idlib, Homs and Daraa
Sunday 24th June
41 deaths in Damascus, the Damascus countryside, Homs, Aleppo, Idleb, Daraa and Raqqa
Monday 25th June
20 deaths in Homs, Aleppo, Idlib and Deir Ezzor as of 15.00 GMT

Civilian Casualties

We have used figures taken variously from SANA, and from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and from VDC, using whichever seem most reliable at the time. Where no distinction is drawn between rebel casualties and civilian casualties, we have, where appropriate, deducted rebel dead from the civilian totals below

Tuesday 19th June
34 Civilian deaths documented from the provinces of Homs, Hama, Reef Dimashq, Deir Ezzor, Lattakia, Daraa and Aleppo
Wednesday 20th June
37 Civilian deaths reported, from the provinces of Damascus, Lattakia, Reef Dimashq, Daraa, Aleppo, Idlib, Deir Ezzor, Hama and Homs
Thursday 21st June
95 Civilian deaths reported, from the provinces of Homs, Hama, Deir Ezzor, Daraa, Idlib, Reef Dimashq and Aleppo
Friday 22nd June
64 Civilian deaths documented from the provinces of Daraa, Deir Ezzor, Aleppo, Damascus suburbs, Damascus and Homs
Saturday 23rd June
66 Civilian deaths reported, from the provinces of Lattakia, Idlib, Aleppo, Reef Dimashq, Daraa, Deir Ezzor, Hama and Homs
Sunday 24th June
65 Civilian deaths documented, from the provinces of Idlib, Aleppo, Daraa, Deir Ezzor, Homs and the Damascus Suburbs
Monday 25th June
As of 14.20 GMT, 12 Civilian deaths documented, from the provinces of Lattakia, Idlib, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Homs and the Damascus Suburbs

NCF Casualty estimates

The number of government casualties has doubled in the past week.  Figures below are for this week ending 25 June (and comparisons with previous weeks ending 11 June and 18 June):
Rebel dead: 77 (last week 41) (previous week 40)
Government dead: 143 (last week 53) (previous week 92)
Civilian dead: 373 (last week 350) (previous week 105)