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ICC Note: Christians have found themselves in an incredibly vulnerable situation in Syria. The conflict has attracted a host of Islamic Jihadist groups who pose an existential threat to Christianity. It has also prompted a harsh crackdown by the regime of Bashar al-Assad that has left many hesitant to support him, only viewing the alternatives as potentially worse. This has led many to flee the country. Other Christians have decided to stay and attempt to protect their land as much as possible, leading to interesting coalitions. Despite the very real dangers, Christians are determined to see the church continue on in the land that was the birthplace of Christianity.
By Balint Szlanko
02/20/2014 Syria (The National) – Sitting on plastic chairs outside a wooden caravan by a dusty road on the town’s outskirts, two young men balance AK-47 rifles on their knees. Every now and then, cars or motorcycles chug down the dirt road; recognising their drivers, they mostly just wave them through. But sometimes they get up, check ID cards, study the faces of passengers, ask questions, peek into the boot.
Civilian-clothed and rather harmless-looking, the two young volunteers are manning a checkpoint on the edge of the town of Al Malikiyah, not far from the front line of a year-long war between the emerging Kurdish autonomy of north-eastern Syria and Islamist militants, some of them linked to Al Qaeda. “It’s our country, so we have a duty to protect it,” says the 20-year-old Rami. “Dangers? Sure there are dangers. But we don’t care.”
There are plenty of checkpoints round these parts. But these youngsters come from Syria’s Christian minority, who have so far been featured in the news mostly as victims in an increasingly vicious and sectarian civil war. Forming about 8 per cent of the country’s population, or some 1.7 million people, they have struggled to find their place in a country that is home to a conflict involving Sunni Arab rebels, extreme Islamist groups, the Assad dictatorship and an expanding Kurdish nationalist movement. Many have given up: some 450,000 Christians have left their homes in two and a half years, according to the patriarch of the country’s Greek Catholic Church, many of them to Europe. Many have been kidnapped by armed groups of one faction or another; their once-thriving community in Aleppo, formerly the country’s commercial capital and now a war zone, has been destroyed. Having long secured a relatively good deal under the Assads’ minority regime, they are now left with practically nothing, the weakest group in a brutal civil war. Many think they may be going the way of their brethren in Iraq, about half of whom left the country due to the war there.
But some have decided to resist, forming their own neighbourhood watches – some call them militias – in the north-east of the country. They are assisting the Kurdish security forces in protecting the area from Islamist rebels; some have joined the Kurds outright, wearing uniforms in their police and militia; many are donating blood and handing out aid; and some have joined forces with their Muslim neighbours to rebuild some of the churches that have been damaged in the brutal to and fro of the civil war. “Leaving is wrong,” says Rami of those who have fled. “This is our country. If we leave, who is going to protect it?”

“People from all the different communities are helping to try and restore this to its original state,” he says again and again. Only then does it occur to him to point out that his partner, Mahmoud, is Muslim. Is he? Mahmoud puts down his tools and nods. “Before the war, people wouldn’t even say he was a Christian and I was a Muslim. It would have been a shame to say such things. And now I’m coming here and he is helping with the mosques,” he says.
Such cooperation is encouraging. But out of Ras Al Ayn’s nearly 300 Christian families, now only 30 remain. Out of Al Malikiyah’s 1,000 or so, perhaps 300. The new Syriac church’s facade in Al Malikiyah is adorned with the picture of two bishops who disappeared in Aleppo in April. The text reads: “We are praying for their souls.” Some of the Christians are stubbornly resisting the forces that are trying to uproot them from their land: Islamic radicalism, civil war and, to an extent, modernity itself that has left them with a lower birth rate than their poorer Muslim cousins. In some ways, it is a miracle that they’ve survived for so long: 1,400 years since the coming of Islam. But amid the increasing brutality of Syria’s war, and with their community seemingly so split on where to turn, it is difficult to see what can stop their continuing decline.

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