Syrian Orthodox Christians attend Easter mass in Damascus. April 2012. Photo AP.
YACOUBIAH, Syria – Christian villagers in northern Syria say they have remained unharmed by Islamic rebels fighting the Damascus regime, but find themselves trapped in a war in which they have no stake.
Residents in the mostly Christian villages of Yacoubiah, Jdeide, and Quinie, which lie between the government stronghold of Jisr al-Sughur and the small town of Darkush, which has been in rebel hands for months, find themselves caught between a rock and hard place.
Yanis, a 27-year-old lawyer in Yacoubiah who worked in Aleppo prior to the two-year-old popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-led regime, says that water and electricity shortages have eased since the Free Syrian Army (FSA) moved into the area last December.
“They knocked on our door and asked if we were Christians. We thought we were going to have to flee, see our house possessed, or worse. But they simply said, ‘don't worry, we will protect you,’” Yanis recalled.
While residents used to suffer power shortages under regime rule, the rebels rerouted electrical power to the village and began and brought in water supplies with tractors, he said.
During fierce fighting around Christmas Day, Yanis' mother spent hours praying before a large painting of Christ that hangs in the living room.
“Despite what they say, and whatever good they've done, we Christians feel lost in this fight. It is a fight between the Sunnis and Alawites. We should stay out of it,” she warned.
A few blocks down, the 10 members of another Christian family huddled around a heating stove, in a sparsely-furnished home free of any religious symbols.
“I am not saying the government is perfect. We know all the horrible things they are doing around the country, but they never mistreated us because we were Christians,” stressed Ektimal, a beautiful woman in her early 30s.
“Now that the FSA controls our village and those around, we cannot travel freely to villages under Bashar's control. I cannot see most of my family,” she said, while admitting that FSA rebels had behaved respectfully toward the villagers, and that there had been no looting or mistreatment.
“Even during the heavy fighting after Christmas, we did not flee. Where could we go? We are farmers, if we move, we die,” she lamented.
“There is no school left open. There will be nothing left in Syria once this war is over. And, if it ever ends, what will happen to us? Extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra will come for us,” she feared.
A teacher in Idlib, speaking on condition of anonymity, said such fears were not irrational, though he personally does not believe them.
“The regime propaganda is extremely effective when it comes to groups like Jabhat al-Nusra. Clearly, they are extremists, but it doesn't mean they want to massacre Christians. In my opinion, Bashar himself commits atrocities against minorities in order to blame them on the Islamists,” he said.
Despite the uncertainties of life, the Christian community of the region still gathers regularly for mass.
“We are not against the rebels,” said George, another villager. “Actually, I am against Bashar. But most of all, I am against war. It will bring no greater good, especially not to us. While they shoot each other, there is no work in the fields, no construction in the city. There is only destruction.”