Written by MCT News Service
BEIRUT—As explosions and gunfire sounded in the distance, the parishioners of St. Joseph’s Church in Aleppo, Syria, prayed for peace Tuesday evening.
“People are terrified,” Chaldean Christian Bishop Antoine Audo said by telephone from Aleppo, following the Mass. “They fear a situation that is becoming more and more violent and uncertain.”
Syria’s most populous city endured another day of shelling, street battles and reported strafing from helicopter gunships. Tens of thousands of people have already fled. Pickups and cars filled with families and their belongings have been streaming out as rebel gunmen battle government forces.
But not everyone has been able to leave. The United Nations reported Tuesday that thousands remain trapped in the sprawling city of more than 2 million, which has become the focal point of the more than 16-month rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The crisis inside the city is becoming ever more dire, say aid workers, who fear a looming humanitarian catastrophe. Bread is in short supply; people are waiting in lines for hours to grab what is available. Gasoline is prohibitively expensive or nonexistent. Cooking oil is hard to find.
People who have fled battle-zone districts are seeking shelter inside crowded schools, parks and dormitories. Volunteers are endeavoring to provide food and water as the fighting rages.
“The situation is extremely tense and volatile,” said Rabab al-Rifai, spokeswoman with the International Committee for the Red Cross in Damascus, the capital.
The battle for the city may escalate in coming days. The government has yet to push forward with scores of tanks said to be positioned on the city’s outskirts. The military could also step up shelling and aerial attacks in a bid to regain control of Aleppo, which many analysts say Assad cannot afford to lose.
The fighting has been concentrated in a semi-circle of districts seized by rebels almost two weeks ago, including the flashpoint Salahuddin neighborhood, its streets and alleys the scene of intense battles.
On Tuesday, opposition activists said, rebels seized three police stations after punishing firefights that cost many lives. The government said its forces had inflicted “heavy losses” on “terrorists,” its label for armed rebels.
But some areas of Aleppo, like the predominantly Christian Sulaymaniyeh district where Audo said Mass on Tuesday, have so far been spared much of the violence. Many people have arrived from other hard-hit districts, the bishop said.
“People are sleeping in schools, in parks,” he said. “There is a great human need now.”
There is a pervasive fear that the violence will spread, creating an even greater refugee flow and more chaos.
Many refugees from Aleppo have headed for nearby Turkey, where tens of thousands of Syrians were already finding shelter in tent cities set up by Turkish authorities. Along the border, a pair of women from the battered Salahuddin district rested beneath the shade of an olive tree.
“They’re telling us that the situation in Aleppo is going to get worse,” said one of the women, who gave her name as Um Mujahid, as her infant son cried beside her.
The two sisters fear nothing will be left if government forces intensify their attacks. “They are shelling randomly and some are saying they might turn tanks on all Aleppo’s neighborhoods, even the calm ones, to destroy the city,” said Um Mujahid.
While Salahuddin is a working-class district, the crisis has also hit wealthy and middle-class neighborhoods and families. Among those fleeing are members of Aleppo’s merchant gentry, long viewed as stalwarts for the Assad government.
A factory owner from Aleppo who crossed into Lebanon last week recounted how he fled with his family in a car to the city’s international airport, passing the bodies of at least five soldiers strewn along the deserted roadway.
Until recently, Assad could argue that his administration had provided a stable environment for business and commerce. But the factory owner, who asked to be identified only as Ayman, said no one in his circle of merchant friends still supports Assad.
“Even those who were with the regime saw how the shells are falling randomly,” he said.
For Aleppo’s Christians, a minority of perhaps 8 percent to 10 percent of the city’s population, there is a profound fear of the unknown.
For all its repression of dissent, the Assad government was tolerant of religious minorities — its ruling clique was dominated by Assad’s Alawite sect, itself a minority. The rebellion draws most support from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community.
“People don’t know what will come next,” said Audo, who is the Chaldean Christian bishop for all of Syria. “We are looking at what happened in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Iraq, the uncertainty.”
Syria’s Christians sheltered many co-religionists who fled Muslim extremism in neighboring Iraq, where churches were bombed and Christian stores torched after the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a secular autocrat, like Assad. And Syrian Christians are well aware of reports of rebels targeting Christians in central Homs province, a center for conflict long before Aleppo became a battleground.
“When I’m asked about Syria, the first think I say, generally, is that we don’t want to become like Iraq,” said the bishop. “That fear is very present with us. That would mean the destruction of a Christian presence in Syria that has been here since the beginning of Christianity.”