Bombs have been planted in the confessional box of one of the world’s oldest churches in a Syrian town hailed as the country’s last remaining centre of religious tolerance, Syria’s most senior Christian leader has disclosed.
On a visit to London to highlight the persecution of Christians in the civil war, Patriarch Gregorios III said the two devices were found at the Cathedral of Constantine and Helen in the rebel-held town of Yabroud.
Not only is the church one of the oldest in the world, but it lies in a town where Christians and Sunni Muslims have so far resisted efforts by al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel groups to drive a wedge between them.
As The Telegraph reported on a visit to Yabroud earlier this month, a self-appointed local council has tried to keep both foreign jihadists and local mafia gangs at bay, as well as government forces. Only last week the Syrian army shelled the church.
The Patriarch said that early on Tuesday morning, two remote controlled bombs were discovered planted in the church, one of them in the confessional box. Challenging the town’s image of harmony, he also claimed that local Christian families had been asked to pay a monthly protection tax of $35,000 by local “armed groups”.
“Yabroud is under the control of armed groups, and Christians are asked for protection money, yet in spite of this, there are these bombs being placed in the church,” he said.
He added that in the event of a rebel victory in the country’s civil war, life for Christians could get even harder because of the hardline Islamist elements in the anti-government ranks.
“The extremists are against even the normal rebel opposition,” he said.
“This is an issue for Muslims as well as Christians. I am not afraid from Islam, I am just afraid of chaos, which will allow these groups to play a very destructive role.”
The patriarch was speaking as part of event organised by Aid to the Church in Need, a Catholic charity that supports Christians facing persecution around the world. In a new report, it has highlighted particular concerns about the Christian minority in Syria, who are at risk from al-Qaeda factions in the rebel movement fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
While many of al-Qaeda’s Sunni Muslim extremists are far keener on persecuting Shia Muslims, the sect to which President Assad belongs, Christians are perceived to be a target as part of the “Crusader” religion.
Predominant in the Syrian middle class, they are also seen to have prospered under President Assad’s regime, inviting accusations of being collaborators.
Hundreds of thousands have been displaced during the fighting in the last two years, with around 1,000 killed, the Patriarch said, although he added that more Muslims had died during the war so far than Christians.