About a million Christians have fled Syria since the civil war started, Chaldean Catholic bishop Antoine Audo said last week, which amounts to 66 percent of the total population of 1.5 million Christians present in the country before March 2011.
“I think now there are maybe 500,000. Two-thirds have left mainly due to the insecurity,” the Aleppo priest said in Geneva where he had gone to attend a side event of the UN Human Rights Council.
The northern city of Aleppo witnessed an even larger proportion of migration of Christians, with only 40,000 now remaining in the city, out of the population of 160,000, before the conflict began.
Audo said that all of Aleppo’s three cathedrals have been destroyed because of violence perpetrated in the city during the last five years.
The bishop expressed his perplexity as to why the militants always targeted Christian sites in particular with the intent to destabilize a population, which they also did in Homs and several other cities.
He refused to blame President Bashar al-Assad for the conflict, and said that Christians were never targeted during his regime.
According to him, “there is no persecution of Christians” by the Assad government, but the Christians were only “targeted” by jihadists such as ISIS to “destabilize the Syrian society and transform the war into a confessional war.”
He believed that if national polling were to be done, as many as 80 percent of Christians would vote for Assad, and that he would emerge victorious with over 50 percent overall support, including of the Sunnis.
The Assad regime and a coalition of Saudi Arabia and the West have been in a gridlock for years. The international community have pushed hard in the UN to have Assad step down as President, a demand which Damascus never agrees to discuss, calling it a “red line” in negotiations, which must not be crossed.
The Bishop told the reporters that since the ceasefire implemented on February 27, the basic necessities of water and electricity are being restored.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has withdrawn his troops from Syria, suggesting that the conflict is coming nearer to its end.
“I consider the mission set for the defense ministry and the armed forces on the whole has been accomplished,” Putin said in a statement on March 14, adding that the pullout was “in accordance with the situation on the ground [in Syria].”
Last month, Pope Francis had met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill in Havana, Cuba, where they signed a joint declaration stating their concern about the Middle East.
“We call upon the international community to act urgently in order to prevent the further expulsion of Christians from the Middle East. In raising our voice in defence of persecuted Christians, we wish to express our compassion for the suffering experienced by the faithful of other religious traditions who have also become victims of civil war, chaos and terrorist violence,” the declaration states.
“Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance,” it continues. “We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace. Large-scale humanitarian aid must be assured to the afflicted populations and to the many refugees seeking safety in neighbouring lands.”