POPE Benedict XVI, during a three-day visit to Lebanon last
weekend, led prayers for peace in Syria and the neighbouring
states, which are increasingly feeling the pressure of the crisis
there. He also urged Arab Christians to remain in the region,
assuring them of the support of the universal Church.
In Syria itself, there are more signs that the minority
Christian community is facing a particular range of challenges, not
least the perception in the eyes of elements within the Free Syria
Army (FSA) that Christians are loyalists of the Assad regime.
The Barnabas Fund, which champions the rights of Christian
minorities worldwide, has received a report from a church leader in
Aleppo. He said that his community was "facing tough times. The
economy is very, very bad. We have shortages of bread, food,
medicine, kids' milk . . . no fuel for cars, nor gas for cooking."
Food prices in Syria are five times higher than before the crisis,
and there are worsening water shortages.
Thousands of Syrian Christians have fled into Turkey, Lebanon,
and Jordan, and are facing uncertain futures and growing financial
difficulties. Some have paid large sums of money to
people-traffickers to try to secure a route into Greece, in the
hope of making their way to other European states.
But for those who have chosen to remain, the options are
dwindling, as they watch the FSA challenge the forces of the Assad
regime with growing ferocity and success. According to reports
coming out of Syria, some FSA units have been acting in an abusive
and violent way towards Christians.
This, The Daily Telegraph reported last week, has
prompted some Christians in Aleppo to accept arms from the Syrian
government and join Armenians in seeking to protect their areas of
the city from opposition incursions.
The newspaper quoted one Armenian Christian as saying:
"Everybody is fighting everybody." The Shabiha, the militia
operated by the Assad regime, were in Aleppo "to kill and
A Saudi-financed satellite television station, al-Arabiya,
broadcast on Wednesday a video recording that had been posted on
the internet by an opposition group calling itself the Ansar Allah
Brigade, operating in the countryside close to Damascus.
The brigade claimed to be the first Christian armed group. It
called on all Syrians to love and forgive each other, and said that
its supporters would stay away from church until after the fall of
the Assad regime.
The crisis in Syria was clearly at the forefront of Pope
Benedict's mind during his stay in neighbouring Lebanon. In his
homily during a mass celebrated on the Beirut seafront last Sunday,
he said: "May God grant to your country, to Syria, and to the
Middle East the gift of peaceful hearts, the silencing of weapons,
and the cessation of all violence."
In conflicts such as Syria's, he said, "the first victims are
women and children. Why so much horror? Why so many dead? I appeal
to the international community. I appeal to the Arab countries
that, as brothers, they might propose workable solutions respecting
the dignity, the rights, and the religion of every human
At the same time, the Pope urged Christian minorities in the
Middle East to stay put and seek reconciliation with their Muslim
compatriots. He assured them that they could count on the spiritual
support of Christians around the world.
On his departure from Beirut, he expressed his appreciation for
the welcome that he had received from the Muslim community, and
acknowledged "how much your presence contributed to the success of
"The Arab world and the whole world will have seen Christians
and Muslims united in this troubled time to celebrate peace."