By BosNewsLife Middle East Service with BosNewsLife Stefan J. Bos and reporting from the region
DAMASCUS/WASHINGTON (BosNewsLife)–- Syrian Christians are reportedly targeted by rebels linked to Islamic terror groups and it remained unclear Thursday, August 23, whether everyone fleeing the violence would be able to reach neighboring Turkey.
“Religious minority groups have become a primary target” of rebels linked to terror group “Al-Qaida and other Islamists who are executing attacks in ‘the name of Allah’, said International Christian Concern, a major advocacy group.
“Recent threats and killings of Syria’s Christian minority include the murder of a Christian family in the Damascus neighborhood of Bab Tuma on July 23 by rebels belonging to the group Liwa al-Islam, or ‘The Brigade of Islam’, ICC said in a statement to BosNewsLife.
“The flight of thousands of Christians from the city of Qusayr in June after an ultimatum to leave the city was issued by a rebel commander,” it added.
There was no immediate response from the Free Syrian Army, a lose force with rebels fighting out President Bashar al-Assad.
ICC said the evacuation of another 63 Christians from the troubled central city of Homs began July 11.
In published remarks, Greek Orthodox Priest Maximos al-Jamal said rebels had kept the Christians in the city as bargaining chips and that, “Gunmen [had] told the besieged people that if [they] go out of these areas, [they] will die.”
He added that thousands of Christians had lived in Homs prior to Syria’s uprising early last year, but today, only 100 Christian civilians remain.
Washington-based ICC said it welcomed that U.S. Congressman Gus Bilirakis introduced a resolution on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on August 2 that would direct American policies towards protecting Christians and other minorities in Syria.
The resolution follows reports indicating that “Islamic extremism is on the rise in a civil war that is taking on increasingly stronger sectarian overtones,” ICC said.
The group cited a recently released video showing masked men, who claim to belong to the Free Syrian Army, holding AK-47s in front of two al-Qaida flags. “We are now forming suicide cells to make jihad in the name of Allah,” a speaker was heard saying in the video.
Minority Christians have been accused of supporting Assad, amid fears that an Islamic takeover will mean even more bloodshed.
“While ICC condemns in the strongest terms the Syrian government’s assault on protesters, we are also gravely concerned about the Islamist agenda of the Free Syrian Army,” said Aidan Clay, ICC Regional Manager for the Middle East. He said they and other rebel forces “are increasingly
targeting the Christian community.”
He said the U.S. government should support the resolution calling for protection of Syrian Christians and other groups and become more involved in Syria. “To stand by and do nothing is not an option. The future of Syria’s ancient Christian community is at stake.”
U.S. President Barack Obama and other officials have said however they are closely following the situation amid mounting concerns over chemical weapons in the region.
On Thursday, August 23, The Los Angeles Times newspaper quoted officials as saying that The Pentagon has made “contingency plans” to send small teams of special operations troops into Syria if the White House decides it needs “to secure chemical weapons depots” now controlled by security forces loyal to President Assad.
President Obama warned this week that any effort by Assad to move or use his arsenal of chemical munitions in the country’s conflict would cross a “red line,” implying possible U.S. intervention.
Rights group Amnesty International suggested on Thursday, August 23, there is little time left for the international community to halt rapidly spreading violence, saying civilians are facing “horrific” violence as the battle now also rages in the previously more quite commercial capital Aleppo.
It lashed out however primarily at Assad regime troops for launching “indiscriminate” attacks. “The use of imprecise weapons, such as unguided bombs, artillery shells and mortars by government forces has dramatically increased the danger for civilians,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International Senior Crisis Response Adviser, who recently returned from Aleppo, in a statement.
Amnesty said it investigated some 30 attacks during a recent visit to Aleppo by its team in which “scores of civilians not involved in hostilities, many of them children, were killed or injured” in their homes, while queuing for bread or in places where they had taken shelter.
Those fleeing the violence had difficulties reaching Turkey, with Anakara warning the country can handle no more than 100,000 Syrian refugees.
Turkey has proposed setting up a United Nations buffer zone inside Syria to shelter them. “If the number of refugees increases to 100,000, we will not be able to shelter them in Turkey. We have to welcome them in Syrian territory” under UN auspices, , Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told Turkish media this week.
The exodus of refugees to Turkey, including Christians, has intensified in the last week as a result of a Syrian army offensive and fighting in the northern city of Aleppo, observers said, reaching a total of 70,000 people.
There are fears in Turkey that the increasing flow of refugees will lead to a repeat of the Gulf War in 1991, when some half a million Iraqi Kurds massed along the common border.
Christians and others also face difficulties in neighboring Lebanon, amid fears the nation will be drawn into Syria’s bloodshed, something described by commentators as a troubling sign for a country that has gone through its own 15-year civil war. Tensions and intermittent fighting in the northern Lebanon city of Tripoli have continued following two days of clashes between pro- and anti-Assad groups that killed at least six people and wounded more than 70, news reports said.