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Syrian patriarch vows to stay despite violence

Islamist rebels have warned Christian towns in central Syria they will be attacked if they do not evict forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. Syria's new Greek Orthodox leader has called on Christians to stay put.

In a video message, seven armed men, including an Al-Ansar Brigade militia leader, said residents of the Hama provincial towns of Mharda and Squilbiya should expel "Assad's gangs and shabiha," a pro-regime militia.

News of the threat coincided with an appeal from Patriarch Youhanna Yazigi in Damascus that Syria's warring parties renounce violence and begin dialogue.

Bishop Youhanna Yazigi outside the Meriamiah Church in the Syrian captial Damascus. Yazigi was inaugurated at the Balamand Monastery, north of Beirut, on December 17, 2012 after he was elected as the new Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church. Photo: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

Patriarch Yazigi has urged Christians to stay in Syria

"We Christians are here in the country and we will stay here," said the new Greek Orthodox patriarch whose predecessor died on December 5.

"What is happening to us is happening to others too. We are in the same situation as everyone else, Muslims and Christians, shoulder to shoulder, facing the difficulties," he said. Some 1.8 million Syrians are Christians. Eighty percent of the population are Sunni.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday while flying home from a summit with EU leaders in Brussels that Syria's civil war had reached a stalemate.

"Assad is not going anywhere, no mather what anyone says, be it China or Russia," said Lavrov, referring to the Syria president, a member of the Alawite minority which is linked to Shiite Islam and forms about 10 percent of Syria's population.

Damascus car-bomb kills five

Saturday's violence also included a car-bombing in the northeast Damascus suburb of Qaboon that killed five people. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 55 people had been killed across Syria.

Three had been killed by snipers on the southern fringe of Damascus' Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp during clashes between rebels and Assad forces, the observatory added.

Germany to fund more refugee assistance

German development minister Dirk Niebel announced a further 14.7 million euros ($19.4 million) in German funding for Syrian refugees in Lebanon as he made a short trip to Beirut on Saturday. The funding for schooling and social work is to be delivered via United Nations agencies.

Niebel visited a Palestinian refugee camp, first established in 1948, which has taken in additional Syrian and Palestinian refugees during Syria's 21-month conflagration. He also had talks with Lebanese Social Affaris Minister Wal Bu Faur.

Niebel also called on Syria's neighbors to keep their borders open to Syrian refugees. His policy was criticized as insufficient by two German groups.

Berlin criticized

"Money and tents don't go far enough," said Günter Burkhardt, who heads the Frankfurt-based refugee organization Pro Asyl. "Those who want borders to remain open must take in refugees themselves."

Watch video 11:59

Syrian refugees in Germany

Green party co-leader Claudia Roth said if Niebel's commitment to refugees from Syria was meant seriously, then the German government "must also be ready at long last" to take more refugees from Syria. She called on Berlin to push for a joint EU initiative to take in refugees.

The UN estimates that since Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011 half-a-million people have fled into neighboring countries, noteably Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Three quarters of them are children, teenagers and women. Within Syria, fighting has displaced 1.2 million people.

Little aid arriving inside Syria

Doctors Without Borders says little humanitarian aid is reaching those suffering. The Munich-based child relief organization SOS Kinderdörfer says the winter weather in Syria is exposing children to "terrible suffering."

"With temperatures around the freezing point innumerable families are trying to flee," SOS spokesman Wilfied Vyslozil told German news agency dpa. "We must act now, to bring them through the winter."

ipj/lw (AFP, dpa, epd)

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