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Syria’s Christians caught between regime and revolution

With ancient roots and an uncertain future, Christian minorities chart a way to survive the conflict and its aftermath.

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A Christian cemetery in Yacubia in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. (Achilleas Zavallis/AFP/Getty Images)

YACUBIA, Syria — As explosions rang out in the distance, some 50 believers in a small church in this rural western village bowed their heads in prayer.

The ancient church has remained almost entirely intact despite months of heavy fighting between government forces and the Free Syrian Army. The only scar is the absence of a large cross that once adorned the steeple. It lies in the roof’s gutter, symbolic of a Christian community caught in limbo between a repressive regime and an increasingly Islamic revolution.

“I feel like we don’t belong anywhere now,” said 28-year-old Ektimal, who’s lived here with her elderly parents and extended family her entire life. “I’m not afraid of the revolution. I’m afraid of the situation that might follow it. I am afraid of the unknown.”

When the Syrian revolution began in March 2011, few among Syria’s many religious and ethnic minorities joined the protests.

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“We’re not Christians standing beside Muslims, we are Syrians standing beside Syrians.”

Meanwhile, the conflict that began as a revolution for freedom took on religious overtones and is now being fought largely between a Sunni majority and a ruling party dominated by a minority of Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Like many Christians, Ektimal has remained neutral, a stance that hasn’t stopped a war that’s claimed more than 70,000 lives from encroaching on the village.

“I’m afraid there will be nothing left when the revolution ends,” she said. “No work, no money, no safe area. Even our farmland is littered with landmines now. But this is our land and we will stay here until death.”

Almost as numerous as the ruling Alawites, Christians account for about 10 percent of the population. The largest groups are Greek Orthodox and various Catholic denominations.

Many Syrian Christians claim Assyrian, Armenian and Chaldean roots, part of a rich history that dates back to Christianity’s earliest days. The country still boasts some of the only remaining communities that still use the Aramaic dialect spoken by Christ.

Yacubia is part of a patchwork of Christian and Arabic villages that lies near the Turkish border in the province of Idlib.

Locals say Christians and Arabs have lived together here for centuries as neighbors and brothers. But many of the village’s 3,000 residents fled when Free Syrian Army forces began entering the village in January.

Although battles in neighboring towns continue, Yacubia remains under opposition control.

“When the fighting began, we just closed the doors and windows and stayed inside,” said 27-year-old Narsis, who worked as a lawyer in the city of Aleppo before the revolution.

“There was no power, no water, no Christmas for us here,” he added. “When the free army came and knocked on our door, we thought they were going to evict us, but instead they said, ‘We will protect you.’”

Narsis says Free Syrian Army fighters are doing their best to provide for the village, but locals say the situation is much harder without the infrastructure of an established government.

All schools are closed. Power and water are rarely available, and those who remain fear retribution from the government. Everyone interviewed for this article asked to be identified by first name only.

Standing in the church courtyard at the end of the service, George, an electrician and father of three, said although the entire population lacked basic freedoms under President Bashar al-Assad, there was no discrimination against minority groups.

“I’m not sure if the fighting is going to change anything,” he said. “But it has certainly brought negatives. Development has ceased. There’s no work. The country is being destroyed.”

Yacubia’s churches are split between Armenian Orthodox and Assyrian Catholic. When the rebels moved in, George said, the Orthodox Christians collectively decided to leave with the government forces. Most Catholics like himself remained.

He says the choice doesn’t reflect support for one side or another as much as a decision about the best way to survive. While many Christian families and religious leaders support the government, others have joined the rebels.

In a back room of a bookstore in Sheihk Masoud, a Kurdish neighborhood bordering a small Christian quarter in the city of Aleppo, a group of Christian intellectuals discussed its choice to stand with the revolution.

The members range from university students to 68-year-old Abu George, a grandfather and community leader who says the revolution is for all Syrians.

“There’s increasing Islamophobia among the minorities,” he said, standing by a wall of books about politics, history, the classics and fiction. “Ethnic and religious divides weren’t a topic for discussion before. We were aware of them, but we didn’t care. The divisions came from the regime, which fueled segregation for it own benefit, one reason we’re against it.”

Abu George estimates that about 40 percent of Christians support the revolution. Those who don’t are either “protecting their own interests or fear the Muslims.”

Despite the uncertainty about the future, this group speaks of hope, not fear.

“Even if the radicals gain power, it will be better because we’ve already won the right to demonstrate,” said Abu George’s companion, a grey haired, resolute man who asked not to be named because he lives in government-held territory.

“The regime is killing us for exercising this right, but whatever follows, we know we have the strength to demand change.”

Abu George said he’s looking forward to a “more civilized” Syria, but stresses the importance that all minorities support the revolution.

“Only in this way will our communities build hope, in standing by the side of our Muslim brother revolutionaries in building a new government,” he said.

Abu George turns the conversation over to the group’s younger men, saying the youth will build Syria’s future long after his generation is gone.

A 23-year-old Aleppo university student recalled his arrest before his wedding for his role in the city’s first protests. He was locked in a cell with “all kinds of revolutionaries,” from Islamic militants to free-thinking bloggers like himself.

“I listened to all their stories, he said. “It was a good experience for me, although not good for my bride or my family.”

He was finally married on his release a month later and has continued to peacefully support the revolution alongside fellow students from all backgrounds.

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By his side, Nabeel, a Kurdish man whose family includes a mix of Christians, Kurds and Arabs, added that Syria’s diversity makes it “unique,” “beautiful” and “alive.”

“I don’t consider myself a minority,” he said. “I’m a Syrian, that’s all.”

The group agrees that way of thinking will be essential to the success of post-revolution Syria.

“We’re a part of this revolution,” said a 35-year-old father of three who had been listening intently. “We’re not Christians standing beside Muslims, we are Syrians standing beside Syrians.” 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/middle-east/syria/130409/syria-christians-assad-free-syrian-army