Some 450,000 Syrian Christians have fled their homes or the country, according to the country’s Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch, almost a third of the pre-war population of 1.75 million.
Speaking in central London ahead of the launch of a new report into the persecuted Church, Patriarch Gregory III Laham presented a devastating picture of life for Syrians but said that neither he nor other Christians had “hate in their heart”, despite the suffering of the community.
The 79-year-old said that three Christians in Maaloula, north of Damascus had been murdered after refusing to convert to Islam. The Aramaic-speaking village is still empty and controlled by Islamist rebels after they attacked in early September, but the patriarch said that he was hopeful that they would return to the village before Christmas.
Despite fears about an Islamist takeover if the Assad regime fell, the patriarch said that the Christian community remained neutral and that “reconciliation” was the only way forward. “I am willing to give my life,” he said.
He said, however, that “both sides are willing to go to the bitter end”, and joked that they should wish for a “better end”. The patriarch also said that Pope Francis’s prayers for peace had helped to stop western powers bombing Damascus.
The patriarch was in London as a guest of the charity Aid to the Church in Need, which will today launch its latest report, Persecuted and Forgotten?, at the House of Lords.
The report claims that persecution of Christians is getting worse around the world, especially in majority Islamic and some authoritarian Marxist states.
John Pontifex, one of the report’s authors, said: “The principal finding of the report is that in two thirds of the countries where persecution of Christians is most severe, the problems have become arguably even worse. In fact the Church’s very survival in some parts – notably the Middle East – is now at stake.”