Syrian Christians fear bleak future after Assad

BARBARA SURK, Associated Press – 24/12/12

BEIRUT  (AP) — With Christmas just days away, 40-year-old Mira begged her parents to  flee their hometown of Aleppo, which has become a major battleground in Syria’s  civil war.

Her  parents refused to join her in Lebanon, but they are taking one simple  precaution inside their besieged city. For the first time, Mira says, her  parents will not put up a Christmas tree this year for fear their religion might  make them a target.

“They  want to stay to guard the property so nobody takes it,” said Mira, who spoke to The  Associated Press in Lebanon on condition that only her first name be  published, out of concern for her family.

“They  cannot celebrate Christmas properly. It’s not safe. They are in a Christian  area, but they don’t feel secure to put a tree, even inside their apartment,”  Mira said.

Christians,  who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s population of more than 22 million, say  they are particularly vulnerable to the violence that has been sweeping the  country since March 2011. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq,  with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.

Hundreds  of thousands of Christians fled Iraq after their community and others were  targeted by militants in the chaotic years after dictator Saddam  Hussein was ousted in 2003.

During  the Syria conflict, Christians have largely stuck by President Bashar  Assad, in large part because they fear the rising power of Muslim  hard-liners and groups with al-Qaida-style  ideologies within the uprising against his rule. Many Christians worry they will  be marginalized or even targeted if the country’s Sunni  Muslim majority, which forms the majority of the opposition, takes over.

The  rebel leadership has sought to portray itself as inclusive, promising no  reprisals if Assad falls. But some actions by fighters on the ground have been  less reassuring.

This  week, the commander of one rebel brigade threatened to storm two predominantly  Christian towns in central Syria — Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh — saying regime forces  were using the towns to attack nearby areas.

The  commander, Rashid  Abul-Fidaa, of the Ansar Brigade in Hama province demanded the towns’  residents “evict Assad’s gangs” or be attacked.

Christians  and other minorities have generally supported Assad’s regime in the past because  it promoted a secular ideology that was seen as giving minorities a degree of  protection.

The  regime and ruling elite are dominated by the Alawite sect, itself a minority  offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, but it has brought Christians  and other minorities — as well as Sunni Muslims — into senior positions.

Christians  have flourished under the Assad regime, which came to power four decades ago  under Assad’s father, Hafez. The regime divided economic privileges among  minorities and certain Sunni families in exchange for giving up political  power.

The  threat of Islamic extremism resonates deeply in Syria, a country with many  ethnic and religious minorities, and the regime has used their worries to try to  keep their support. Assad has warned repeatedly that the country’s turmoil will  throw Syria into chaos, religious extremism and sectarian divisions.

Still,  Christian activists have also figured prominently among the opposition to Assad,  advocating an end to autocratic rule in the country. Christians were among the  numerous political opponents that the regime jailed alongside Muslims over the  years.

Aya,  a Christian artist who has been campaigning against the regime for years,  predicted prison won’t be enough in the eyes of the rebels to balance the  perception of Christian support for Assad. She fears score-settling if the  regime falls.

“Many  Christians think that this regime is good for us,” said Aya, a 51-year-old from  Aleppo who fled to Beirut in October. “They think that if they keep quiet, Assad  will stay, and protect us. But this is an illusion.”

When  the government deployed fighter jets to Aleppo to drive back rebel advances in  the northern city, they did not spare Christians in the city, Aya said.

“We  all got hit, but it’s too late now for Christians to change their minds about  this regime,” Aya said. “I am afraid that now we will pay the price for being  silent about this terrible regime all these years.”

Even  for those who support the rebels, the nature of the opposition has caused  ripples of apprehension. As the fight to overthrow Assad drags on, the rebels’  ranks are becoming dominated by Islamists, raising concerns that the country’s  potential new rulers will marginalize them or establish an Islamic state.

Al-Qaida-inspired  groups have become the most organized fighting units, increasingly leading  battles for parts of Aleppo or assaults on military installations outside the  city.

“Most  (Christians) want to return (to Syria), but they want to wait until the fighting  is over and see who will be ruling Syria after the war,” Mira said.

Aleppo’s  schools are closed. Food and electricity are scarce. Most stores have been shut  for months. Even though some areas of the city — including the predominantly  Christian district along Faisal Street — are still controlled by government  forces, the streets are unsafe, she said.

Aya  lamented that it’s nearly impossible to imagine the country going back to what  it was. In the weeks before she fled for good, she said, the violence  overwhelmed her.

“There  was so much shooting, such terrible bombings, and I could not take it,” she  said. “In two weeks I slept for 10 hours, I did not eat and I cried all the  time, because my city was turning into ruins, and I saw it with my own  eyes.”

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