With the escalation of fighting in the Syrian city of Homs, area pastors are also reporting a significant uptick in the number of Christian deaths, targeted killings, and kidnappings.
According to those sources, Islamic militants fighting the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have killed more than 200 Christians in the city of nearly 1 million in recent days, including entire families with young children. They also have kidnapped Christians and demanded ransom payments. Some have been released, but in at least two cases in Homs the bodies of the kidnapped men were found after ransom had been paid.
"What we are hearing firsthand is the exact opposite of what's being reported in Western media," said Victor Atallah, director of Middle East Reformed Fellowship based in Cyprus. "Most Syrians are most frightened of an Islamic takeover in Syria and are fleeing not from the government but from Islamic thugs from all over." Atallah said he had received reports of fighters in the Homs area from Lebanon, western Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Throughout the now 11-month-old Syrian uprising, Homs has been a magnet for Islamic militants and a lightning rod in the conflict between rebels who want to overthrow the government and the army of the Assad regime. The city, Syria's third largest behind the capital city of Damascus and Aleppo, is an industrial center situated 100 miles north of the capital along a corridor of surface trade with Lebanon and shipping ports. Sixty years ago Homs was nearly half Christian, but church members now make up only a little more than 10 percent of the population. Christians in the area are mostly Orthodox, but there is a historic Catholic church in the city center, Armenian congregations, and a sizeable Presbyterian church, as well as others in the immediate, surrounding area.
Atallah contended that the shelling of Homs by the army has not been citywide but focused on key areas where Islamic militants have taken over, primarily the Baba Amr and Talldaw districts. Last May, the army and security units seized caches of weapons and arrested armed terrorists in Baba Amr, discovering a field hospital for militants that had been set up inside the al-Jilani Mosque.
Atallah said he believes the reports from local residents that the attacks on the government in those areas, which began last spring, largely have been the work of outside militants-many of them masked men on motorcycles-who have set fire to tires used to block roads, burned police cars, and fired randomly on civilians.
Months of escalating conflict later, and well into a week of sustained government shelling, observers reported hundreds dead from government assaults and more than 70,000 internally displaced in Syria. But most of the casualty figures are being relayed to reporters and human rights activists in Lebanon or Jordan, as few Western observers have been permitted direct access to Homs.
Atallah said many Christians from Homs, including pastors, have fled the city to places in the north, but he said overall casualty reports have not factored in violent attacks by Islamic militants and terror-linked outsiders.
On Sunday, Arab League members called for a joint peacekeeping mission in Syria with the UN, and urged Arab nations to support the Syrian opposition in the face of the government crackdown. Only hours before that, al-Qaeda released an eight-minute video featuring terrorist leader Ayman al-Zawahiri-also calling on his followers to support the Syrian opposition.
"Wounded Syria is still bleeding day after day, and the butcher [Assad] isn't deterred and doesn't stop," said Zawahiri, who took over al-Qaeda after U.S. Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden last year. "However, the resistance of our people in Syria is escalating and growing despite all the pains, sacrifices, and blood."
That puts the United States in an increasingly difficult position: siding with its terrorist enemies alongside the international community in demanding Assad's ouster, or tacitly supporting an increasingly isolated and blood-soaked regime.