Many Christians have fled from their homes in places such as the historic city of Maaloula.Many Christians have fled from their homes in places such as the historic city of Maaloula.Mounir Soussi Idrissi / Flickr / Creative Commons

Almost a third of Syria’s Christians have left since the start of the civil war, according to one of the country’s senior clerics.

Syria’s most senior Catholic leader Gregorios III Laham, the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch, told the BBC that more than 450,000 of Syria’s estimated 1.75 million Christians have gone.

However, he said he remained sure that Syria’s Christian community would survive.

The precise number of Christians in Syria is open to debate, as is the number of those who have left the country.

A spokesperson for Open Doors International, an organisation which supports Christians under pressure for their faith, says he thinks the figure for those who’ve left may be significantly lower.

There is some debate about the number of Christians in Syria at the beginning of the civil war. Suggestions that Christians amounted to around 8 per cent of the population are thought optimistic by some.

And of those Syrians known to have left the country – whether to refugee camps in neighbouring countries, or further afield – the percentage of Christians is believed to be lower than 8 per cent.

Patriarch Gregorios spoke at the London launch of a new report on Thursday (October 17), which claimed that the persecution of Christians is worsening globally.

Catholic international aid agency Aid to the Church in Need’s 2013 Persecuted and Forgotten? claims that an exodus of Christians from many countries threatens Christianity’s status as a worldwide religion.

The worst problems, according to the report, are found in North Korea and Eritrea.

“The principal finding of the report is that in two-thirds of the countries where persecution of Christians is most severe, the problems have become arguably even worse,” said John Pontifex, one of the report’s authors. “In fact the Church’s very survival in some parts – notably the Middle East – is now at stake.”

The report suggests that the Arab Spring has turned into the ‘Christian Winter’, with political upheavals proving particularly costly for the Christian minority in the Middle East.

“From all accounts, the incidents of persecution are now apparently relentless and worsening; churches being burnt, Christians under pressure to convert, mob violence against Christian homes, abduction and rape of Christian girls, anti-Christian propaganda in the media and from Government, discrimination in schools and the workplace… The list goes on,” said Pontifex.