Syrian Christians fear the future

By Barbara Surk

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 23 2012 9:43 p.m. MST

Syrian Christians attend Easter mass last April. Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria's population.

Associated Press

BEIRUT — 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.

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