Recent reports out of Syria have warned of the ethnic cleansing of 90 percent of the Christian population of Homs, the city that has been ravaged by the conflict between Assad's forces and armed opposition groups since the uprising against the regime began in February last year. The responsibility for the mass killings and expulsions has been pinned on an armed opposition group known as the "Al-Faruq Brigade."
This claim first gained wide distribution in a report published on March 21 by Agenzia Fides (the official Vatican news agency ), which declared its source to be "a note sent to Fides by some sources in the Syrian Orthodox Church."
Fides added that "in the 'Faruq Brigade,' note other sources, there seems [sic] to be armed elements of various Wahhabi groups and mercenaries from Libya and Iraq."
The claim of 90 percent ethnic cleansing can actually be traced to a report put out on March 13 by an online Arabic outlet known as Al-Haqiqa (Arabic for "the truth" ), with the URL address http://www.syriatruth.org.
A quick Google search reveals that the original memo sent to Fides by the church leaders had been copy-pasted almost down to the last word from the SyriaTruth site, which is notorious for its pro-regime propaganda. Officials of the Syrian Church did not confirm the story with anybody in Homs before sending out the memo. They must have presumed that the SyriaTruth writers did.
As a matter of fact, Al-Haqiqa had already been taken to task by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI ), which specifically referred to its reporting of extensive Al-Qaida and international jihadist presence among the Syrian opposition as "bogus."
Shortly after publishing the memo, Fides began backpedaling, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the original report. Later, it released another report quoting the "Jesuits of Homs," who told the outlet that there were no cases to their knowledge of Christians being forced out of their homes by Islamists.
Homs happens to be around 30 kilometers from the border with Lebanon, which is home to a large and relatively powerful Christian community, making it a natural destination for Christian refugees - indeed, around 20,000 Iraqi Christians have found safety there since the 2003 invasion. Nevertheless, there has been no reported upsurge in Syrian Christian refugees to Lebanon in recent weeks. On March 8, the Christian Science Monitor reported a few thousand Syrian refugees fled to Lebanon - mostly Sunnis from the Bab Amr quarter of Homs.
Understandably, Christians have fled their homes amid fears of being caught in the crossfire. According to a report in Lebanon's Daily Star, some Christians have been temporarily forced out of their homes by Sunni fighters, but only because they needed space to fight government forces; further, contrary to the claims of the Al-Haqiqa report, the fighters allowed the Christians to take what they needed.
Besides, the claims of straightforward ethnic cleansing by Islamist militants do not add up, because that is not how jihadist groups deal with Christians. For example, the standard practice in Iraq for jihadist groups like Al-Qaida - renowned in Iraq for its brutality - is to first demand jizya, which is a "poll-tax" imposed on Christian and Jewish minorities, in traditional Islamic theology.
If the minorities fail to pay jizya, they face bomb attacks or other violence. Yet the reports in Al-Haqiqa and Fides make no reference to imposition of jizya.
There is little reason to doubt the motivation of Vatican and church leaders, who after Iraq have become extremely worried about the fate of the remaining Christian communities in the Middle East.
Yet, over-the-top, sensationalist reporting by SyriaTruth and similarly pro-regime sites, combined with church leaders both in Syria and abroad responding by crying wolf before confirming the news, makes for an explosive and dangerous mix, with the potential of turning unfounded rumors or deliberate disinformation into self-fulfilling prophecies.
With the death toll in Syria running in the thousands, and many times more wounded or tortured during the heavy crackdown by security forces on this predominantly Sunni uprising, there is a steady buildup of anger and frustration on the Sunni street with regard to the position of Syrian minorities, who often either are supportive of the regime or have adopted an "on the fence" approach.
As the rebels are reportedly running out of ammunition in many areas, the opposition leaders are pinning their last hope on the international community. News in the global media about Syrian Christians disseminating such reports about their Muslim neighbors can easily become the last straw that will break the back of the camel of sectarian coexistence.
The Vatican and the local church leaders, preoccupied with the protection of their communities in Syria, may have the best intentions in the world. But when they fall for such sites as SyriaTruth, it is tempting to diagnose their case as one of "With such protectors, who needs Islamists!"
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Middle East Forum. Oskar Svadkovsky is a computer networking professional based in Tel Aviv and the owner of the "Happy Arab News Service" blog.
Phillip Smyth is a journalist and researcher specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. He travels regularly in the region.