Syrian Christians fear rise of jihadist rebels
In Wadi al-Nassara, a valley in western Syria dotted with Christian hamlets, residents have hung white silk ribbons to mourn war victims and pray the army will defeat its jihadist foes.
Portraits of “martyrs” who died in the 29-month conflict between government forces and rebel fighters such as the radical Al-Nusra Front group, dot the streets.
President Bashar al-Assad’s face is also omnipresent in the region, including in Marmarita, once a bustling summer resort near the Krak des Chevaliers, a fortress listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
In July, an air raid by the regime damaged one of the towers of the ancient Crusader castle, as fierce fighting raged between regime forces and rebel fighters who control the fortress.
Around 50,000 Christians now live in Wadi al-Nassara, where they have formed “popular defence committees” with the blessing of the authorities.
On August 15, rebels travelling from Al-Hosn village where the Krak is located attacked checkpoints manned by the local committees killing 11 people — five of the militiamen and six civilians.
Jacques Saade was one of the men killed.
“Jacques was defending us against those who wanted to hurt us,” said his mother, clad in black, breaking down in tears.
“My son died a martyr,” she sobbed in the family living room, where a huge picture of the young man in military fatigues and standing against Syria’s red-white-black flag stares down at visitors.
Issa Saade, the father, said his son’s death will not prompt him to leave his home village, despite it being the frequent target of attacks by rebels.
“I will stay here, cowering in a hole if I have to, but in my own house. May God bless Bashar and may the government win.”
His daughter Marta, 40, agreed.
“We urge the government to send the troops to protect us against armed men who are assassinating our children and our youths,” she said, dressed in mourning black like her mother.
Issa Yazigi, whose son Soumer was also killed in the August 15 attack, said most residents have fled Al-Hosn and now the town is in the hands of jihadist fighters.
“The extremist groups threaten us and are trying to chase us out” of Marmarita, said Yazigi.
Syria’s main opposition group, the National Coalition, has issued a statement urging residents to defend the “revolution” that is aimed at toppling Assad and his government.
“We urge our relatives on the coast and in the mountains… to show solidarity with the goals of the revolution to put an end to decades of despotism,” the National Coalition said.
It also urged residents to be wary of “lies fabricated by the regime which pretends to protect minorities, while using them as hostages to defend the (Assad) clan.”
Christians account for only five percent of the population in Syria, and many back the Assad regime because they fear the growing strength of jihadists whose aim is to set up an Islamic state in Syria.
The majority of rebel fighters — like the population — are Sunni Muslims, while Assad belongs to another minority sect, the Alawite community which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Though it started in mid-March 2011 with peaceful protests calling for the fall of Assad’s regime, Syria’s war has grown increasingly sectarian and jihadists have flooded the battlefields.
“They’ve came, they’ve cut off roads. They, Al Nusra Front. They are scary,” said the mother of Soumer Yazigi. “Too many of our youths have been killed. Enough! We want the army to protect us.”
He husband insisted that “jihadists… are threatening to take over the valley.”
Other residents complained that Marmarita’s main street was constantly under fire from rebel gunners holed up in the Krak. “They open fire on us when we walk down the street,” one said.