By Nina Shea
The Vatican news agency Fides reports today that two new mass graves containing a total of 30 bodies were found in Sadad, an ancient Christian town of some 15,000 people between Damascus and Homs, bringing to 45 the number of residents killed there by Islamist militias since October 21.
Surviving relatives and friends uncovered the graves after government forces recently recaptured the town from rebels. Those killed were reported by the local Syriac Orthodox metropolitan, who presided over 30 of their funerals this week, to be Christian civilians, including women and children. A list of their names was provided to the Catholic press.
The Islamist rebel militias of Al Nusra Front and Daash were identified by eyewitnesses as responsible for this war crime.
The battle also resulted in the destruction and looting of the town, including its homes, hospitals, schools, government buildings and electrical, telephone, and water capabilities. St. Theodore’s Syriac Orthodox Church and a number of the 4,000-year-old Assyrian town’s 14 other churches and a monastery have been desecrated.
Some 2,500 Sadad families have fled so far and ten others are missing.
Syriac Orthodox archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh remarked that this was the deadliest single attack against Syria’s Christian community of the civil war and ranks close to the massacre at Baghdad’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic church by jihadists during Sunday Mass on October 31, 2010, when 58 were killed.
According to international media reports, rebel shelling has increasingly hit several majority-Christian districts in Damascus. Together with a devastating siege on Maalula that Lela Gilbert reported on last month, this has heightened fears among Syria’s Christians that they are being targeted for religious reasons by Islamist extremists in the rebellion.
Syria’s most senior Catholic leader, Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic patriarch of Antioch and all the East, estimates that more than 450,000 of Syria’s some 1.75-2 million Christians have left their homes since 2011.
The patriarch was chosen to author the introduction to the international Catholic aid agency Aid to the Church in Need’s recently issued report on Christians oppressed for their faith worldwide, a report that is relied on by the Vatican. In it the patriarch emphasizes that until two years ago, “our country was a beacon of hope for Christianity in the Middle East,” and that “ Syria was a sanctuary for Christians escaping persecution in Iraq.” But no longer. The Iraqis have fled again and Syria’s native Christian community is facing a religious cleansing.
The patriarch writes: “As Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour, fell under the weight of the Holy Cross, Simon of Cyrene was fetched to help. We too need a Simon to help bear our cross.”
Archbishop Alnemeh concludes his interview with Fides with his own anguished appeal:
“We have shouted aid to the world but no one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers? I think of all those who are suffering today in mourning and discomfort: We ask everyone to pray for us.”