Escaping a city wracked by incessant violence, Syrian Christians from Homs flocked to a nearby monastery on Sunday to celebrate Christmas away from a place that “has gone mad.”
The Saint George de Mishtaya monastery, parts of which were built in the sixth century, lies in a lush valley some 50 kilometres (30 miles) from Homs which has become a major frontline in the uprising against the regime.
The famous Krak des Chevaliers, a remarkably well-preserved Crusades-era castle, is visible across the valley, and the green, peaceful region serves as the cradle of Christianity in a country that is now threatening to unravel.
“At the start, the unrest didn’t affect certain neighbourhoods of Homs, but today madness has seized the city,” said Rami, 37, who crossed herself as the bishop passed along the aisles of the church, blessing those in attendance.
Rami, who lives with his wife in Homs, said armed men are now visible “everywhere” in the city.
“It’s very dangerous,” he added.
“I have three storage units in Baba Amro (district), but I haven’t been there in three months.
“The last time, an armed man asked for my identity card and in seeing my name swore that I had been very lucky. ‘If you had been an Alawite, I would have cut you through,’ making a gesture with his thumb,” recalled the engineer, who also has a shop in the city centre.
Sectarian killings in Homs have increased and the victims have primarily been Sunni Muslims and members of the Alawite Shiite sect, to which Syria’s defiant President Bashar al-Assad also belongs.
While regime forces increased their presence in Homs as the uprising there intensified, no one praying at the monastery on Christmas Day was prepared to identify the other groups of armed men now patrolling the streets of the industrial city 160 kilometres north of Damascus.
The regime’s opponents and the Local Coordinating Committees, a group that organises many of the anti-Assad protests, say the non-government forces are army deserters who refused orders to fire on protesters.
The regime insists that they are “armed gangs” or radical Islamists who want to plunge Syria into chaos, rather than usher in a new era of democratic governance, as the opposition claims.
Rami’s wife Mara, a lecturer at the pharmacy faculty in Homs university who was cradling their five-month-old baby in her arms, decided to stop teaching there at the end of the semester.
“It is out of the question to spend Christmas, a holiday of peace, in that city. Now we are seriously planning to stay here,” added Mara, 27.
The sound of automatic gunfire and explosions could be heard on Christmas Day from 0400 GMT, according to reports from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Tonya, a schoolteacher in a Homs neighbourhood affected by the relentless violence, said she and her colleagues have tried to continue working, even if their efforts sometimes prove to be futile.
“The school is open. We are 35 teachers who come in turns, but there are no students. What parent would be crazy enough to send their children to class while there are daily battles between soldiers and armed men?” the 48-year-old asked.
Some 200,000 Christians live in Homs, which also has 16 churches.
Half are Greek Orthodox, but most other branches of Christianity are also represented, according to George Abu Zakhem, metropolitan of the Orthodox church in Homs.
“Since the start of the events in March, 80 Christians have been killed, including 20 soldiers. We count three children among them,” the clergyman said.
This is a relative figure, as the hospital coroner has previously said an average of 200 people are killed in Homs each month.
In the monastery’s basilica, built in the sixth century, Norma, her head covered by a shawl, asked God to restore peace in Syria, where the United Nations says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the unrest began.
“My husband has stayed here in this village since April after having closed his office in Bab Sebaa (in Homs). To feed my family, I spend half the week in Homs and the other half here,” said the 45-year-old dentist.
“It is truly terrifying every time, but if you want, you can overcome it. There is no other choice,” she added. Norma said she had an uncle who was violently killed and another who was kidnapped four months ago.
“Every night there is shooting” in Homs, she said. “That city has gone mad.”