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Inside Syria: Aleppo’s Christians arm against Islamists

As foreign and local radicals rise amid the chaos of Syria’s civil war, Christians are taking arms from the Assad regime.

that Christians were acting as regime spies. Almost all Qseir’s Christians have now fled, with many taking shelter in makeshift tents in the northern Bekaa valley.

“I used to work as a legal consultant, but now I live like a beggar here in Lebanon,” said a woman who gave her name as Marta and who said her husband had been kidnapped. She said her home in Qseir had been taken over by rebels and destroyed.

Abu George, from Aleppo, said officials from the ruling Baath Party had offered prominent Christians in Aziza and other Christian-majority areas of Aleppo “AKs and pistols” late last year. The weapons, they were told, were to protect themselves against the “armed gangs” the regime claimed to be fighting.

For the first year of Syria’s uprising, Aleppo remained largely untouched by the mass protests seen in opposition strongholds like Homs and Hama.

More from GlobalPost: Aleppo, Syria’s sleeping giant, stirs

Today, however, Abu George sees the regime’s control over Aleppo as slipping, directly threatening his community.

“The armed fighters took over the Midan police station, very close to the Christian quarters. There are no police there now, so how can we live? We see on TV armed young men with beards shouting, ‘God is great!’ and calling for jihad. We have the right to defend ourselves.”

The exact number of Christians in Aleppo, a city of three million people, is not known but estimates vary between 100,000 and 250,000.

Like Abu George, Abu Omar al-Halaby was a shopkeeper who has taken up arms. But Abu Omar is a Sunni, a fighter with the Brigade of Unification, one of the largest rebel groups holed up in Aleppo’s Salah Adeen quarter.

Speaking to GlobalPost, Abu Omar said his unit had deliberately not deployed in Christian areas in order not to inflame communal tensions. “We are very concerned for civilians and have been working to get people out and to safety,” he said.

Abu Omar said he wanted the right “to go to a mosque, have a long beard and practice my Islamic duties freely” and said much of his motivation to fight stemmed from the religious persecution he saw his father suffer under Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s former dictator.

“My father was arrested for 15 years just because someone who hated him wrote a report to the security services, accusing him of being a member of the (banned) Muslim Brotherhood,” he said.

“He was not, but he was a religious man who spent time at the mosque. A piece of paper took him away from us. Three months after he was released from prison, he died.”

GlobalPost's James Foley, who is inside Aleppo, talks to the PBS Newshour:

Watch Refugees, Rebels Flee Syria Conflict Areas as Troops Advance on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

As religious and sectarian hatred intensify, Syrian rebels are being joined by foreign jihadis, some of whom have reportedly fought in Iraq, Afghanistan and even Yemen.

Last week, a Dutch and a British photographer in northern Syria were released from captivity at what they said was a training camp for between 30 and 100 foreign jihadis, who repeatedly threatened to kill them.

“They were only foreign jihadis; I don’t think there was one Syrian among them,” Dutch photographer Jeroen Oerlemans told the New York Times. “All day we were spoken to about the Quran and how they would bring sharia law to Syria. I don’t think they were Al Qaeda, they seemed too amateurish for that. They said, ‘We’re not Al Qaeda, but Al Qaeda is down the road.’”

Standing guard at the Salama border crossing near Turkey, a rebel known as Abu Sadiq told GlobalPost last week that since they had seized that and other crossings on Turkish and Iraqi borders, “more Arab fighters had entered the country to fight with us against the Assad regime.”

Abu Sadiq said the foreign fighters included men from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Algeria and Libya and that many he had met said they were inspired to come to Syria after seeing the news on the massacres in Houla and Homs.

“We try to keep the non-Syrian fighters out of sight as we don’t want them hurting us with their radical ideas. The Assad regime brings Shiites from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon and Russian military experts so we have the right to ask for help from Sunni nations,” Abu Sadiq said.

“The regime made this a sectarian war against the Sunnis. Syria is not Afghanistan, but right now we need help from anyone.”

A GlobalPost reporter contributed from Aleppo, Syria, Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand contributed from Beirut, with additional reporting by Rami Aysha.