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Christians Besieged in Homs, as Religious Lines Blur

The famous black stonework in Syria’s third city of Homs bears witness to the coexistence of Christians and Muslims over the ages. Nothing but ancient walls separate churches from mosques. Sometimes, those walls are even shared.

Written by Yazan Homsy Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

In the quarters of Old Homs, the two faiths are so intertwined that it is impossible to find a street that is solely Muslim or Christian. If there is a church on a street, then there is a mosque; if there is a minaret, then there is a bell tower.

[![DSCF2042 [1600×1200] (1)][2]][2]Most of the Christians residing in Homs have worked to stay neutral over the course of the Syrian uprising, though some have openly sided with the regime or even the opposition.

But for Christians who stayed in their neighborhoods alongside Muslim rebels, neutrality was not an acceptable position for the regime. Security checkpoints were erected in an attempt to separate mixed residential quarters. Attempts to remove the checkpoints were met with random shelling that did not differentiate between Christian and Muslim homes or churches and mosques.

The mainly Christian districts of al-Hamidiyeh and Bustan al-Diwan suffered the brunt of the army bombardments due to their location in the heart of liberated (rebel-held) Homs. Residents were forced to flee at a moment’s notice, leaving most of their possessions behind. Those who remained suffered a worse fate of raids and massacres when regime forces advanced.

The rebels’ resilience in these areas created new divides that separated the liberated neighborhoods from those held by the Syrian army. In effect, most of the rebel areas are now completely under siege.

Nearly 10,000 Muslim civilians and rebels live in the besieged neighborhoods of Homs. Among them are 85 Christians, most of whom are elderly people. They refused to flee their homes despite being given the chance at the early stages of the siege in June 2012, when hundreds of thousands of Christian and Muslim residents left.

Father Francis van der Locht, a Dutch national who lives in Syria, is one of the people who chose to stay behind and take care of his fellow Christians. Most besieged residents know him for his sincere face, his heavy Arabic accent and his bicycle. He shares a bond of familiarity and friendship with those around him without discrimination.

[![DSCF2044 [1600×1200]][3]][3]Inside a church, a young Muslim girl helps take care of the families that had taken up residence there after fleeing their homes in the night. They had narrowly escaped the horrific massacres committed by encroaching troops in Karam al-Zaytoun, al-Nazeheen, al-Awadiyeh, Ashirah, and Deir Baalba. The mosques and churches of besieged Homs now provide shelter to survivors.

Abu George is a Christian wanted for opposing the regime even before the revolution broke out in March 2011. He signed the 2005 Damascus Declaration, which included several opposition signatories from different camps. Abu George decided to stay in the besieged city away from the grasp of the security forces. For him, living under siege is better than being on the run.

I ran into him once while he was doing his laundry next to a well. I asked him about living under siege and his views of the opposition in Syria, and in particular what he thought of the armed opposition.

“It has not matured enough to be able to finish off the regime,” he said. “The infiltrations and divided camps have made things even more complicated.”

Six churches dating back to the early part of last millennium and Christian schools dating to the 17th and 18th centuries were destroyed during the army shelling of al-Hamidiyeh and Bustan al-Diwan. The mosques in the area were not spared either.

Despite the destruction, Christians from different sects (Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants) gather for Sunday mass in one of the church halls that remains intact. Once divided by sect, they are now brought together under siege. Sunday mass unites all, and a communal breakfast is served on Wednesday. Their meetings are the closest they have to a family.

Evelyn, in her 60s, attends church every Sunday and Wednesday. With little to do, the elderly are often seen passing the time in the neighborhoods. During a quick chat, Evelyn refused to be on camera and avoided pointing fingers to the regime or rebels.

“Enough with the shelling. There are no houses left standing. Everything is destroyed. My daughter’s house is in ruins. My granddaughter’s school has been burned down.”

When asked who is responsible for all the destruction, she did not give a specific answer and just kept repeating, “Enough, enough, enough.”

She treats aid workers helping Christian families and individuals as she treats all others under siege. She allocates food rations for them, and Father Francis is responsible for delivering the aid.

Their fear of the regime is ever-present for the Christians of besieged Homs, casting a shadow over every movement. As a photographer, I document daily life under siege, but whenever an elderly Christian happens to be in the background of a photo, he or she will beg and make me promise not to publish it.

They do not want to be in these photos, which they see as a direct confrontation with the regime. Their biggest fear is that the government could stop paying pension to their families who are not under siege. This economic need is a major factor in their need for neutrality.

Umm Fadi says, “God bless you, please don’t take my photo.”

DSCF2068 [1600x1200]Many of those under siege volunteer to help families to secure their daily needs of water, electricity, flour and other food rations. They treat everyone the same. Some help by transporting water from the wells, while others are responsible for delivering electricity to the homes of the elderly.

Their pictures of church gatherings are posted on a Facebook page “Simply our Hamidiyeh,” which began as a pro-regime group and later announced its neutrality after rebels took control of the local area. One of the administrators is a local girl who helps at one of the churches. The page shows pictures of life under siege using neutral terms. They do not delve into who is shelling and why, though some have been wounded in the bombardments, and they limit themselves to writing about the locations of explosions.

Abu Rami is a Christian who lives alone. During Ramadan, he visited his Muslim neighbors and friends, with whom he had been close before the revolution, to break their fast with them. During one of the iftars, the topic of discussion was the “popular defense committees” in Christian villages in the western Homs countryside. They are pro-regime and helping to enforce the siege on the rebels in those areas by burning bushes and cutting down trees that provided cover for the regime forces.

“Rural people are different from city people. We have lived together; we know what your revolution is all about and why it started. But they don’t know what we know,” he said about his fellow Christians. “A couple of thugs would do worse than that for money.”

After 14 months under siege, new relationships and bonds have taken root, based on a grueling blockade and common needs. Christians and Muslims have become each other’s new families after their loved ones fled the city. Under siege, families forget about religion or place of birth. It is more important what they share: a siege on all aspects of life, and the daily sound of shelling and the destruction that impacts all religions and sects equally. They share their suffering, and lack of water, food and power. When the initial negotiations between rebels and the International Red Cross kicked off to get civilians out of the city, only 18 Christians voiced interest in leaving. The others insisted they stay under siege, while being provided with food and medicine. Life is hard, but there is a silver lining.

The lines that once defined religion and sect have been blurred in Old Homs, and residents are now unified by a new identity: besieged.

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.

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