Tank outside church in Syria.
A young UK-based mother has given a powerful testimony of the suffering of close family and friends in Syria reeling from the savage murder of their parish priest. The young married woman with two daughters described how Christians and others in her native city of Qatana, south-west of the Syrian capital, Damascus, were being terrorised by extremists demanding they leave the country or risk being killed.
Reporting on telephone conversations and other contact with friends and family in Syria, she said the local community was traumatised by the killing of Fr Fadi Haddad, 43, parish priest of Qatana’s Orthodox parish of St Elias.
The priest’s naked body was discovered on the side of a road outside Damascus on 25 October, several days after he had been abducted. His eyes had been gouged out and his body mutilated.
The young mother explained how Fr Haddad, a close family friend and neighbour in Qatana, had gone missing after setting off by car to negotiate the release of a Christian dentist from the city who himself had been kidnapped a few days earlier.
The woman, who cannot be named without risk to her family’s safety, told Aid to the Church in Need: “My family and friends very much feel under threat. People from the area have said that extremists have gone through the streets shouting ‘Alawites to the grave, Christians to Beirut’. They want to kick us out. They say that if Christians refuse to leave they will end up in the grave like the Alawites.
“Nobody seems to care what is happening to us Christians in Syria. The government we had in the past was bad but at least we were safe. At least we could walk the streets. You’d never think you might be bombed by extremists. Not any more. Now it’s very scary. Now they are bombing churches. Look at what has happened to our churches in places like Aleppo and Homs.”
She said that the frequent attacks on churches meant people were often too afraid to go to church and that Christians’ fears were heightened by rumours spread on Facebook and other social media.
“The extremists threaten us Christians when we want to celebrate major feasts like Christmas and Easter. They don’t want us in the area at all.”
The woman said her family had warned against efforts to track down the priest’s killers in case of retaliation, adding that her mother was still traumatised by the sight of the disfigured face of the clergyman whose body she had prepared for burial.
She said the family were devastated by the killing of the priest who was in the same class at a school with her brother and who had taught her at the local Sunday school.
The fate is unknown of the kidnapped Christian dentist, whose freedom Fr Haddad had tried to secure. A ransom of up to 50 million Syrian pounds (US$700,000) had been requested for the dentist’s release. The ransom reportedly rose to 750 million Syrian pounds after the abduction of the priest and the dentist’s father-in-law who was travelling with the cleric when they were kidnapped. The latter’s fate is also unknown.
Stressing the fear for Christians in Syria, the woman said: “I cannot sleep at night. Whenever I call my family and I can’t get through, I immediately start fearing the worst. I feel I am living a nightmare everyday.”
She described how her niece had a lucky escape when a bomb went off in Damascus last month opposite her school. Fortunately, she was at home that day. She said that many Christians and others had tried to leave but there had been a clampdown on visas to neighbouring countries.
The woman said that her mother was terrified of bombs blowing out the windows of her home and that at various times had abandoned her bedroom and slept in the hallway. The young woman and her husband moved to the UK several years ago and now have permanent residency here with their children but most of their family are still in Syria.
She asked for prayers and support, urging that action be taken to protect her people in Syria, especially Christians.
In a statement, Greek Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV Hazim, who led Fr Haddad’s funeral service and who had originally ordained Fr Haddad in 1995, described the priest as “a martyr of reconciliation and harmony”. He added: “We strongly condemn this brutal and barbaric act against civilians, the innocent and the men of God who strive to be apostles of peace.”