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
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
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
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
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
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