By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
DAMASCUS/VIENNA (BosNewsLife)-- Hundreds of Syrian Christians have been killed and several Christians kidnapped as fighting rages between government forces and rebels, an aid group working in the region told BosNewsLife Thursday, February 16.
"The key battleground of Homs is encircled by fighters from both sides, leaving the Christians there and in the surrounding villages – approximately 100,000 – in the firing line, many of them trapped in the city," said Barnabas Fund, which supports local believers there.
The Britain-based group said at least over 200 Syrian Christians died in recent clashes and added that the community "has been beset by a series" of kidnappings blamed mainly on rebels calling themselves the Free Syrian Army.
"The rebels make high ransom demands for the return of the captives, but in two known cases the victims’ bodies were found after the money had been paid," Barnabas Fund claimed, without providing more details.
"Some families are now becoming so desperate that they tell the kidnappers to kill their loved one immediately rather than subjecting them to torture."
FREE SYRIAN ARMY
There was no known response to the allegations of the Free Syrian Army, which military experts claim still lacks a clear command structure and suffers under little, or no, training and poor equipment.
However the reported incidents came after church leaders said they fear "a mass genocide of Christians" if Islamists takeover in Syria, where Sunnis Muslims make up 74 percent of the country's 22 million population.
Analysts say thousands of Christians, perhaps in many cases reluctantly, are tied up in the regime's security apparatus and are employed in high-ranking government and military positions.
Aware that masses might rise up against the regime, Syria's previous president, Hafez al-Assad, sought to consolidate power among the minorities, including Christians.
And, under the secular regime of current President Bashar al-Assad, "Christians had relative freedom to worship" although "Christian meetings were monitored by the secret police and evangelism was discouraged," said Open Doors, a group supporting "persecuted" Christians.
There are two million Christians in Syria, around ten per cent of the population, according to several estimates, Among them are thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees who have been forced from their homeland by anti-Christian violence and persecution, and are already in desperate need, Barnabas Fund said.
CHRISTIANS FEAR FUTURE
While Christians have expressed concerns over reported brutality under the the current president, they are even more worried about their future, according to Christian rights activists.
"Our brothers and sisters in Syria are in a desperate state, facing the daily struggle of trying to get enough food to feed their families while war rages all around them," stressed Barnabas Fund's International Director Patrick Sookhdeo in remarks to BosNewsLife.
"They are also understandably anxious about how this conflict is going to end and what that will mean for their future in the country."
Rights groups say more than 6,000 people have been killed since regime forces began cracking down on democracy protests launched on March 15 last year, including at least 24 people across the country Thursday, February 16. Among those killed were reportedly four people in clashes in the the city of Daraa where the uprising began and 14 others who died in a government assault on a defected area near Hama.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon told reporters in Vienna Thursday, February 16, that he is demanding that President Bashar al-Assad's government immediately stop the “shelling and use of force against civilians.”
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
“We see almost certain crimes against humanity. The lack of agreement in the Security Council does not give the government license to continue this assault on its own people. The longer we debate, the more people will die," he said. He did not address reports of wrongdoing against Christians by the Free Syrian Army.
Christian aid workers said orphans and whole families are being evacuated, and are in desperate need of food and basics. "Christians in Syria are hungry and helpless amid the brutal fighting between government troops and rebels," Barnabas Fund claimed.
Prices have sky rocketed, supplies are running low, and it is often too dangerous to go out in search of food, according to Barnabas Fund and Open Doors investigators. Even in some parts of the country not directly affected by violence, there is inflation of up to 50 percent, while in Homs itself some prices have reportedly tripled, Christians added.
Barnabas Fund said it has launched a fund to support local Christians and urged Christians to pray "for peace and stability to be restored in Syria" and "For all those who have lost loved ones in the violence, that they will be comforted in their grief."
Aid workers said that for Syria's Christian community prayers have been urged "that the Lord will be their rock, fortress and deliverer" and that "He will meet all their needs", a reference to Bible verse Psalm 18:2.