- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

BEIRUT — Inside the besieged Syrian city of Homs, where hundreds of civilians are caught up in a fierce battle between rebels and government troops, a small group of Christians is making its own desperate pleas for safety.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country of 22 million people.

They fear Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.

“What is happening in these neighborhoods pains our hearts,” said Maximos al-Jamal, a Greek Orthodox priest who is still in Homs.

He says about 90 of the civilians in two besieged Homs neighborhoods are Christians, down from thousands who lived in the area before the uprising began.

“Before we were staying here to guard our homes, but now the situation is unbearable,” one Homs resident told the Associated Press by telephone, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals by both sides of the conflict.

He said he fears the rebels want to keep the Christians trapped in the city as a bargaining chip while the army’s bombardment and ground attacks on the city intensify.

Syrian Christians largely have stuck by President Bashar Assad, fearing the strength of Muslim hard-liners in the uprising against his rule.

Several mediators have made an urgent appeal to evacuate the Christians, who they fear could be targeted for their religion.

Syrian Christians don’t have to look far for an example of brutal treatment. Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled Iraq after their community and others were targeted repeatedly by extremist militants in the chaotic years after Saddam Hussein’s 2003 ouster.

The Christians, who are trapped in Homs’ Hamidiyeh and Bustan Diwan neighborhoods, include four children younger than 10. There is barely any electricity or running water, telephone lines are unreliable, and they are forced to hide in shelters during daily shelling.

Pictures posted online from the neighborhoods show empty streets full of debris, bullet-riddled buildings and churches with blown-up walls and windows.

Mr. al-Jamal said a Greek Orthodox Church and a Protestant church were destroyed.

The Rev. Michel Noman, who is trying to mediate a safe passage for the Christians, wrote on a Facebook page dedicated to Hamidiyeh that the people trapped in the area are tired.

“I tell them all, there are people who have been working to get you out. We will keep trying 20 more times and 30 more times in order to rescue those human beings,” Mr. Noman said.

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