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Christian hamlet escapes Syria war but falls prey to looters

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The bibles lie untouched on the carved wooden stands but the chandeliers have been dumped upside down on the altar; the Christian village of Al-Yakubiye may have escaped the full ravages of Syria's civil war but it could not avoid the plundering of the fighters.

Along the main road of this agricultural village in Syria's northwestern province of Idlib, an old cemetery with stone crosses adjoins an Apostolic Orthodox Armenian church whose door lies open, buffeted by the winds.

Those who swept through here seized anything of value, plundering even the chancel and the sacristy. Under a portrait of a benevolent Virgin Mary, a thief stole the chalice from the tabernacle.

Al-Yakubiye, nestled in a lush mountain overlooking the Orontes valley, fell to the rebels two weeks ago after fighting that lasted for several days.

The bulk of the clashes were around a fortified army post at the entrance to the village, until the troops pulled out hastily and headed to Jisr al-Shugur, further south.

President Bashar al-Assad's soldiers spared the village, which boasts one Catholic and two Armenian churches, from street battles that would have inevitably turned it into ruins.

Of a population of around 600 during the winter, only a few men, a handful of elderly and a Catholic priest, stayed back during the fighting.

"Christians and Muslims have lived together as brothers here for centuries," says Georges, a pensioner who boasts that his family roots in the village go back "one thousand years".

Sited in the heart of a majority Sunni Muslim region of Syria, Al-Yakubiye with its "half Armenian, half Catholic" population, according to Georges, serves as a summer resort for Christians of Aleppo, the main city in the north and one-time flourishing economic centre.

On this rainy day, the few who venture out onto the streets are confronted by heavy mist. Street corners are piled high with garbage. Many houses are closed up but some doors and shutters show signs of having been forced open.

Before beating a hasty retreat, Assad's forces had parked themselves with their tanks and armoured vehicles in the garden of an Armenian church.

The soldiers did not enter the church itself, which remained shut, but turned its courtyard into a dumping ground for open sand bags, leftover food and filth.

In "liberated" Al-Yakubiye, rebels of the Free Syrian Army, mostly from nearby Sunni villages, have taken over several houses along the central road. The owners gave their approval, they say.

Mussa Beidaq, the 27-year-old chief of the rebel battalion, has set himself up in a house close to the Catholic church. The keys to the house were handed to him by the priest on condition that it suffers no damage.

Nothing has been moved -- not the icons nor the crucifixes nor the paintings on the walls depicting the Archangel Saint Michael.

"We will soon be gone," says Beidaq. "There was no violence against the village and we will not tolerate it either."

"Not a single villager was killed," adds Joseph, a resident in his 40s, who is quick to say that relations with the rebel FSA have been "correct".

He said it was the Catholics who stayed behind, while many Armenians, some of whom agreed to help regime troops, had fled for fear of reprisals.

"We Catholics refused to take arms given by the army," he says.

Some families have begun returning to the village, only to find their homes looted.

"Soldiers forced their way into empty houses," says Beidaq while acknowledging that insurgents too flocked in after the village fell.

"Do not look for the guilty in one or the other camp," says Georges.

"There are good and bad people everywhere."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130208/christian-hamlet-escapes-syria-war-falls-prey-looters