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Civil war gives Syrian minorities no clear option

Thursday - 3/7/2013, 9:36pm  ET

In this Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 photo, a Syrian flag is seen on the ground next to the mosaic of Santa Ana, at the Santa Ana Armenian Orthodox church, which was use as a base by the Syrian army forces, at the Christian village of Yacobiyeh, in Idlib province, Syria. Yacobiyeh and its neighbors, Judeida and Quniya, are some of the first Christian villages to be taken by the rebel Syrian Army. The rebels stormed these hilltop villages in late January, after the army used it as a base to shell nearby rebel-controlled areas. The villages are largely empty due to the fighting, with a few mostly elderly Christians -- including Roman Catholics and Armenian Orthodox _ living among Sunni Muslim refugees who have moved up here from the plains. They still face sporadic artillery bombardment from below.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

STEVE NEGUS
Associated Press

YACOUBIYEH, Syria (AP) -- During the battle over this hilltop village in northern Syria, many of its residents fled, leaving behind empty homes, damaged churches and a large statue of the Virgin Mary in the deserted town square -- all relics of its Christian population.

Now Yacoubiyeh is one of the few minority-dominated communities captured by Syria's rebels in the country's nearly 2-year-old uprising, making it a key gauge of how the opposition fighters mainly from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority deal with the country's broad patchwork of religious and ethnic minorities.

The Muslim commander of the local rebel garrison appears to be trying to allay any fears among the around 2,500 Christian residents who remain in the village since the fighting in January, saying he won't impinge on anyone's rights. But, like many rebel leaders now in charge of Syrian villages, he is making decisions according to a version of Islamic law that, though not strict, Christians could find constrictive.

"To each his freedoms," said the commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Hakim, suggesting that Christians could drink alcohol in their homes, but not in public. "Personal freedom stops where the freedom of others begins."

As the regime of President Bashar Assad battles a rebellion capturing increasing swaths of the country, the old order that governed relations between the country's myriad sects and ethnicities is fraying.

Many of Syria's minorities find themselves stuck in the middle, unsure which side poses the greatest danger. While outraged by the regime's brutal efforts to quash the opposition, many find equally frightening the Islamist rhetoric of many rebels, and their heavy reliance on extremist fighters.

Christians, one of the largest religious minorities at about 10 percent of Syria's 23 million people, have tried to stay on the sidelines. However, the opposition's increasingly outspoken Islamism has kept many leaning toward the regime.

"I am not convinced that these people want freedom and democracy," said Fadi, a Christian civil engineer from Damascus, voicing a common view that the rebels are led by extremists. "I sympathized with them at the start, but after all the destruction, killing and kidnapping, I prefer Bashar Assad."

Like other Syrians interviewed for this article, he spoke on condition that only his first name be published for fear of retribution.

Syria's population hails from a mix of ethnic and religious groups, a diversity reflecting their position at the crossroads of the Levant.

Some three-fourths of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but the country is also home to other Muslim groups like Shiites, Druze and Alawites, as well as Christians and ethnic communities of Kurds, Armenians and others.

All coexisted with varying degrees of ease under Assad's regime, founded more than four decades ago by his father, Hafez, and inherited by Bashar in 2000. The Assad family is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot sect that makes up about 13 percent of the population, and the community is the backbone of his regime, holding many senior posts. But the Assads also made sure to bring Sunnis and members of other groups into some prominent positions in the government and military, and let them carve out lucrative sectors of trade.

But the uprising against Bashar Assad's rule that began in March 2011 quickly became an outlet for long-suppressed grievances, mostly by poor Sunnis from marginalized areas. It has since escalated into an outright civil war.

So far, rebels have mainly taken control in Sunni majority areas. There, most commanders do not appear to be aggressively imposing religious puritanism, as insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq have. Still, they fall back on Islamic law as the default way of resolving disputes and keeping order.

Sectarian violence is increasingly common. Recent weeks have seen clashes between Sunni and Shiite villages in central Syria, hundreds of sectarian kidnappings in the north and damage to Christian and Shiite religious sites after their capture by rebels.

Many rebels increasingly describe their cause in religious terms. Calls for freedom have been replaced by chants declaring Islam's Prophet Muhammad "our leader forever." Online videos have shown rebels smashing truckloads of alcohol bottles and mocking executed government soldiers as "rafideen," a derogatory term for Shiites and Alawites. Many hardline Sunnis consider Shiites infidels.

In Taftanaz, a Sunni town near two government-held Shiite enclaves in a rebel-dominated region, graffiti on a wall shows an ayatollah with a Grim Reaper's head, labeled "The Truth of Shiism."

Further stoking minority fears, Islamic extremists have risen in the rebel ranks. Jabhat al-Nusra, which the United States considers a terrorist group, has been at the forefront of most recent rebel victories.

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