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Rebels leave after seige of Homs ends

16 May 2014

reuters

Damaged: Om al-Zenar church, one of 11 churches in the Old City of Homs, destroyed during fighting between President Assad's army and rebel fighters

Damaged: Om al-Zenar church, one of 11 churches in the Old City of Homs, destroyed during fighting between President Assad's army and rebel fighters

ELEVEN churches were among the scores of buildings destroyed in the Old City of Homs, Syria's third-largest population centre, during more than two years of fighting between rebels and the army. Towards the end of last week, 270 rebels were allowed to leave Homs under a deal brokered by Iranian and Russian diplomats, ending a year-long siege.

As Syrian troops moved in to clear mines and explosives from streets piled with debris from wrecked offices and apartment blocks, the Greek Orthodox Metropolitan, Bishop George Abou Zakhem, who lives in Homs, visited the sites of some of the churches caught in the crossfire. At the same time, other civilians, who had fled the city at various stages of the hostilities, returned on foot to see whether any of their properties and belongings were salvageable.

One Syrian Orthodox church that was damaged but not destroyed is that of Our Lady of the Belt. On Sunday, returning Christians attended mass there. "I know there is damage, but this is the happiest moment in my life, to be back in the church where I was baptised and my son was baptised," Sawsan Hanoon told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "We will rebuild it with our own hands."

Prayers were also said for a Dutch Jesuit priest, Fr Frans van der Lugt, who was murdered by a masked gunman in April (News, 11 April). He had helped arrange ceasefires to allow trapped civilians to leave Homs. But he resolutely refused to follow them out of the city, working until the end to provide food and medicine to the needy.

As part of the deal to end the siege of Homs and allow safe passage to the opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime, rebel fighters allowed aid convoys to reach two besieged Shia-populated towns, Nubl and Zahraa. Rebels in the northern provinces of Aleppo and Latakia also released dozens of people they had been holding captive.

The director of operations for the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, John Ging, said: "The agreements that you're seeing between the government and the opposition are evidence of what can be done."

The lifting of the siege of Homs on government terms, after weeks of bombardment, represents a symbolic victory for the Assad regime and is a further sign that the central authorities are regaining some of the key regions of the country. President Assad himself has predicted that his forces will break the back of the rebels' military capability before the end of the year.

In a display of self-confidence, Mr Assad is putting himself forward for a third term in office in elections on 3 June. Polling will take place only in government-controlled areas. The Syrian authorities have been strongly criticised for holding elections when the country is in so much turmoil.

President Assad, still assured of Iranian and Russian support, appears to be increasingly certain that he will be part of any deal that is eventually reached to end the Syria crisis. While two little-known candidates are also running for the presidency, Mr Assad's overwhelming victory is guaranteed.

Most Syrians would probably settle for any candidate who could restore peace and allow people of all faiths to resume normal daily life. But the 2014 report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlights how far that prospect is from reality.

The report accuses the Assad regime of "targeting Sunni Muslims and other individuals or groups that oppose it". It says that the army's "indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas has killed tens of thousands of Syrians and displaced millions".

The USCIRF report concludes that "all Syrians, including Muslims, Christians, Alawites, and the smallest communities, such as Yezidis and Druze, are living in bleak conditions and face a dire future."

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