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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.

Fighting in Syria shifts as sectarian divisions intensify

The war in Syria is increasingly defined along the lines of a Shia regime versus a Sunni opposition.

and their names placed on wanted lists for anti-government activities.

For Majid Rafizadeh and his family living in Damascus, being Shia Muslims did not excuse them from being targeted by government forces. Majid now lives in the US working as a Middle East scholar, lecturer and editor for the Harvard review, but his extended family remains in Damascus. To date, four of his cousins have been shot in the street by either government security or rebel forces and his uncle was arrested, tortured and killed. Several others have been kidnapped and escaped or fled the country under threat. Another cousin remains missing.

“At the end of the day, what matters is if you accept the ideology of the regime or not,” Rafizadeh said, adding that while his family does not support the opposition, they do not support the government of Bashar al-Assad either. “When it really comes down to it, the regime is not so much sect-based as it is based on corruption. It’s connections that matter more than religion.”

The growing perception that the Syrian conflict is a Sunni versus Alawite struggle troubles Soma deeply.

“A lot of Alawites have been arrested in the past for political activities,” he said. “The regime only favors those who support them.”

Soma often secretly stays in the Aleppo home of one his most trusted friends Basel Absi, a Sunni archeology student whose family actively supports the Syrian government. While the two are on opposite sides of Syria’s sectarian divide, their stories are not so different. While both gave full support to a peaceful uprising, they have both found themselves at odds with an increasingly Islamic movement, separated from their families who remain on the other side of the Syrian frontline.

Absi was among the first anti-government protesters in his hometown of Ariha in Idlib. At that time, only a tiny group of students supported the uprising.

“It’s hard to imagine now, but about 90 percent of Ariha was pro-government then,” said Absi.

Ariha is now under rebel control and almost all who remain claim allegiance to the FSA.

But back then, Absi described mass pro-government demonstrations and attacks by local citizens, almost all of whom have now joined the FSA, wielding knives and sticks at their small group as they called for freedom and democracy.

In the following months, placards read, “Syria is ours and not Assad’s.” Protesters chanted, “The people want the fall of the regime.”

But slowly racism and religion crept into the chants of the demonstrators. Speeches became more like religious lessons than calls for democracy.

On a visit to Ariha in mid-2012, this reporter observed protests led by Sunni sheikhs who lectured the crowds from pulpits and the back of pickup trucks on religious virtue, appropriate dress for women and calls to God to grant victory over the enemy. Absi said arguments began to erupt between the Islamic clerics and the more secular, pro-democracy speakers.

“Every day we could see this Islamic element increasing. Some began to think that if we wanted freedom it would have to be by Islamic rules,” he said.

“When people are arrested, tortured, see their family killed, they need something to believe in. It’s like you become so weak and disempowered you need something more powerful to count on – more powerful than everyone. This is why so many turned to God,” Absi added.

More and more people began to join the protests, and increasingly the crowds poured onto the streets straight from Friday prayers at the mosque.

“At the beginning we would chant, ‘Allah, Syria and freedom only’, but later we found ourselves saying ‘Allah, we don’t have anybody but you,’” Absi said. “Step by step, racism and religion began to creep in. It was gradual so we didn’t see it coming. We dismissed it as an expression of belief. But before we knew it they were screaming in the mosques to kill Alawites and Shias.”

“Christians go to Beirut, Alawites go to your coffins,” became a common protest chant.

In an effort to stem the tide of Islamist ideology from destroying their democracy movement, Absi and a group of university students launched a magazine called The Pen of the Nation.

But their call for a united uprising and denunciation of sectarianism led to death threats for Absi and his friends.