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Syrian Christians hide as Islamist rebels target them

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
August 12th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Syria's Christians are struggling ever more desperately as al Qaeda fighters launch a genocidal attacks against them amid that country's civil war. Although many are sympathetic to the revolution, they say the influx of jihadists is destroying the movement and Christianity in its ancient nursery.

ANKARA, TURKEY (Catholic Online) - Christians in Syria are under intense pressure to flee the country as fighters from both sides target them. Many are unwilling to side with Assad, but also feel increasingly threatened by jihadists which have bolstered the ranks of the Free Syrian Army.

The development isn't new, as Christians have been persecuted for some time amid the violence, but the intensity is becoming more pronounced as jihadists target Christians and their churches and shrines.

If Israel is the cradle of Christianity, Syria is its nursery. In the city of Damascus, followers of Jesus were for the first time referred to as Christians. Christians have a long presence in the state, which today hosts various Catholics including Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, and other smaller sects.

Christians did not generally join the uprising against Assad, having enjoyed a measure of tolerance under his regime. This reluctance to war has made them suspect to rebels. However, Christians have suffered widely under the depredations and indiscriminant killings of Assad's regime. In response, Christians formed a brigade in the Free Syrian Army.

Despite this, they're still seen as targets, primarily by jihadists who want Syria to become an Islamist state. For the jihadists, mostly affiliated with al Qaeda, Christians are a barrier to creating that state.

At the start of the conflict, Christians made up 10 percent of Syria's population. Today, that percentage is simply unknown. What is known is that a disproportionate number of Christians seem to have fled their homes, many into neighboring Turkey.

However, they're not exactly streaming into the refugee camps established for them. In fact, in a camp set up by the Turkish government, with a segregated section just for Christians, nobody resides. Christians won't enter the camp for fear of Islamic reprisals.

Instead, Christians are trying to live in the poor sections of Turkish cities, often in apartments and slums, afraid to go to the camps and afraid to return to Syria.

Most Muslims have no hostility towards the Christians, who in Syria have long enjoyed a good reputation as devout people who were easy to live beside. However, Christians are too afraid to take their chances with strangers, and thus their quiet reclusion, even in safety.

Across the border in Syria, stories continue to develop of Churches destroyed not by indiscriminate bombing and shelling by Assad's forces, but by jihadist rebels. Rebels are burning churches, icons, and on several occasions have martyred Christians there.

The growing awareness of jihadist extremism amid the rebels has likely stalled U.S. and other western support for the rebels as they fight what seems to be a slow, losing campaign against the Assad regime.

Meanwhile, Assad has turned the tide against the rebels, making gains with Russian, Iranian, and mercenary support.

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