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Syria’s Christians Caught Between Islamist Rebels and the Regime

Syria's Christians Caught Between Rebels, Regime's Soldiers

ICC Note: “Many members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East are fleeing Syria,” NPR reports. “Those who stay say they fear they will be targeted by Islamist militants — a growing force among rebels fighting President Assad's regime.” Reports indicate that Christians and their places of worship have been increasingly targeted by terrorist attacks during Syria’s 23- month conflict, similar to what was seen in Iraq’s war that resulted in more than half the Christian population leaving the country following the US-led invasion in 2003.

By Deborah Amos

2/21/2013 Syria (NPR) - Syria's minority Christians are caught in the middle of that country's civil war. Many members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East are fleeing the country. Those who stay say they fear they will be targeted by Islamist militants, a growing force among rebels fighting the Assad regime. NPR's Deborah Amos traveled from Turkey to visit one Christian community in Syria where rebels and Christians are finding ways to work together.

To get to the Christian villages of northern Syria you have to cross a river. There's no official border post here, just a dirt track to the banks of the Orontes River and a rowboat. It's the way Saint Paul may have traveled when he introduced Christianity here centuries ago. This is the way that people get back and forth. We've seen mattresses, flour, blankets, refugees.

This is the route to Qnieh, a Christian village in the fertile green mountains overlooking the river. This corner of Syria fell to the rebels a month ago. The Syrian army retreated further south. Now rebels control checkpoints along a road cratered by artillery shells. These rebels are Sunni Muslims from surrounding villages. They check our car outside the cobblestone courtyard of St. Joseph's Church, built in 1878. There are no weapons allowed inside the white stone church.

Father Hannah Jalloul, a Franciscan priest, makes sure of that.

Many Christians are very, very afraid of the rebels. Are Christians here afraid of them?

FATHER HANNAH JALLOUL: (Through translator) There is always fear of anything new, so it's natural. But all the rebels are from our area, from our region. So these are our sons.

AMOS: As we talk, the shelling in a nearby town gets louder. The fight for this part of Syria is far from over. Hundreds of civilians - Sunni Muslims - have come to this Christian village for shelter. Father Jalloul helps organizes food and blankets for the displaced. The booms reminds him of the recent fight for Qnieh.

AMOS: Father Jalloul walks down the hall past photographs portraying the church's recent past. But a dusty glass case filled with ancient mosaics says more about the reason he stayed through the fighting. Our roots are here, he says, in this village from the first century of Christianity in what is now Syria.

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