Christians in Aleppo voice fears over Syrian uprising

By Patrick J. McDonnell
Los Angeles Times
For Aleppo’s Christians, there is a profound fear of the unknown. The Assad government was tolerant of religious minorities, but the rebellion draws most support from Syria’s majority Sunni Muslim community.

BEIRUT — As explosions and gunfire sounded in the distance, the parishioners of St. Joseph’s Church in Aleppo, Syria, prayed for peace.

“People are terrified,” Chaldean Christian Bishop Antoine Audo said by telephone from Aleppo, after the Mass on Tuesday. “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.

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 fighting has been concentrated in a semicircle of districts seized by rebels almost two weeks ago, including the flash point 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.”

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.”