DAMASCUS, Syria - A handful of Syrian Jews celebrated the start of the Jewish Passover holiday Sunday with prayers at Damascus' only synagogue, saying they feel free to openly practice their religion just as Muslims and Christians do.
"There are only about 100 Jews left in Syria, after the late President Hafez Assad permitted Jews to leave the country in 1992," said Albert Qameo, a Jewish community leader in Syria.
Over the past 16 years, some 3,700 Jews have left Syria for Israel and the United States.
The remaining Syrian Jews live in the capital, Damascus, the northern city of Aleppo and in the northeastern city of Qamishli.
"Here I was born, studied and worked. Here is our history, and we have our holy sites that we have to look after," Qameo said.
Qameo, 59, led Sunday's prayers, which were attended by only seven Jews at Al-Feranj Synagogue in the old Jewish quarter in central Damascus.
Jews who worship in the Syrian capital do so without a rabbi, after their chief rabbi left Syria for the U.S. in 1994.
"I'm happy in Syria where I perform my Jewish rituals like Muslims and Christians do," Qameo said, speaking in Arabic. "Marking Passover here in this synagogue is a proof that Jews in Syria are living peacefully and in security."
Another worshipper at Sunday's prayers, Joseph Hamdani, said he lives peacefully in Syria and maintains good relations with his Muslim and Christian neighbors.
"I don't feel like I'm being treated differently," said Hamdani, 41, who also speaks Arabic.
While Syrian Jews celebrate Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, their government has no diplomatic relations with Israel.
Syria supports the Palestinian militant group Hamas, as well as Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon. Both groups have claimed responsibility for attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis.
U.S.-sponsored Israel-Syria peace talks broke down in 2000 over final border and peace arrangements. Syria demands the full return of the Golan Heights, the territory seized by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.