x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

'It's not safe to celebrate Christmas'

Christians in one of Syria's most besieged cities fear their religion may make them a target of violence.

A Syrian woman hangs Christmas decoration at home in Damascus. Most Syrian Christians have decided not to use decorations this year.
A Syrian woman hangs Christmas decoration at home in Damascus. Most Syrian Christians have decided not to use decorations this year.

BEIRUT // Christmas was just days away when Mira begged her parents to flee their hometown of Aleppo, which has become a major battleground in Syria's civil war.

But her parents refused to join her in Lebanon. They are, however, taking one simple precaution inside their besieged city. For the first time, 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, 40, who spoke 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."

Christians, who make up about 10 per cent 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 Islamist 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 Al Assad, in large part because they fear the rising power of Muslim hard-liners and groups with Al Qaeda-style ideologies within the uprising against his rule. Many Christians worry they will be marginalised or even targeted if the country's Sunni majority, which forms the majority of the opposition, takes over.

The rebel leadership has sought to portray itself as inclusive, promising no reprisals if Mr Al 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 Mr Al 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, an offshoot of Shiism. Mr Al Assad is Alawite, but the regime has brought Christians and other minorities - as well as Sunnis - into senior positions.

Christians have flourished under the Assad regime, which came to power four decades ago under Mr Al 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 Islamist 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. Mr Al 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 Mr Al 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 Mr Al Assad. She fears score-settling if the regime falls.

"Many Christians think that this regime is good for us," said Aya, 51. She fled from Aleppo 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 Mr Al Assad drags on, the rebels' ranks are becoming dominated by Islamists, raising concerns that the country's potential new rulers will marginalise them or establish an Islamic state.

Al Qaeda-inspired groups have become the most organised 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."