CHRISTIANS OF SYRIA 

“Yallah! Come on, boy!” says Ziad, a young man in his thirties, who speaks English with a heavy Arabic accent.
He is dragging me through the chaotic alleys of Antakya, Turkey, 50 kilometers from the Syrian border. Around us, cars are darting down the road, women in their hijab are passing by and kids are playing on the sidewalks.
Once we get to the main entrance of a block of flats, Ziad presses a button on the intercom. The door opens. “Yallah! Come on, boy! Jacques is waiting inside!” he says.
 

Ziad is a former soldier of Bashar Al-Assad’s army. He defected few months ago, after refusing to join an attack on the rebels in Damascus. He crossed the Turkish border to become one of the 600,000 Syrian refugees living inside Turkey.

Ziad is also Catholic. He is member of a minority counting less than 400,000 people in Syria. Overall, Christians are two millions and they make up 10% of the total Syrian population. Some of them still speak Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ.


As the civil war drags on with increasing sectarian tones, religious minorities are caught in the middle between the rebel factions and the Syrian Army.

In early September, the Islamist rebel group Jabhat Al-Nusra launched an offensive on the town of Maaloula, considered the heart of Syrian Christianity, in south-west Syria.
The militiamen killed at least ten Christians after they refused to embrace Islam.

According to The Independent, Maloula’s Christian population has fled. Overall, 60% of the Syrian Christians left the country.


As the civil war drags on with increasing sectarian tones, religious minorities are caught in the middle between the rebel factions  and the Syrian Army.

In early September, the Islamist rebel group Jabhat Al-Nusra launched an offensive on the town of Maaloula: the heart of Syrian Christianity, [...]
The militiamen killed at least ten Christians
after they refused to embrace Islam.

I met Ziad at the Catholic church of Antakya. After chatting for a while, we were rushing towards Jacques’ house.

Jacques, like Ziad, is a Christian refugee.

“I could not go back home because there is Al-Qaida,” Jacques tells me. He is from Lattakia, in the Northern part of Syria. Since 2011, the army and the opposition have been fighting recklessly for Lattakia. The city is the main Syrian port and a crucial outpost to keep the supply lines open.


Back in April, after one of the many skirmishes between the Syrian Army and the rebels, Jacques decided to cross the border.

In early August, last summer, Jabhat al-Nusra assaulted the city with a convoy of tanks flying the Al-Qaeda flag.“They destroyed the villages around Latakia and they burned one church to the ground,” Jacques tells me. According to Human Rights Watch, 200 people were slaughtered during the siege and the take of Latakia.

They were mainly Alawites and Christians accused of supporting Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. “The rebels are evil. They are Al-Qaeda.” That is the answer Jacques gives me. “They hate the Christians living there.”

Under Assad’s regime, Christians were allowed to profess their religion: a right that the jihadist brigades are not certainly advocating.

Throughout the conversation, Jacques and Ziad never condemned the dictatorship.“Before the war, thanks to Bashar, we were free to go to church, to pray and stay safe,” Jacques explains.
“Now, neither the FSA nor Jabhat Al-Nusra are protecting us. They are both evil.”

To many, an undemocratic but religiously tolerant regime is better than any opposition’s plan for post-war Syria.



 

As we talk, a Turkish channel is airing a news bulletin about the masses of Syrian refugees fleeing to Iraq.

Nearly 5,000 people look for shelter within the Iraqi borders. The scenario is as dramatic in Turkey.

Ankara estimated that Turkey is hosting at least 600,000 registered refugees in more than twenty camps. Other 400,000 are illegally staying in border towns like Antakya.
 

Jacques paid 6,000 Turkish lira to cross the border and dodge the Turkish guards. “I could not go to a camp,” he tells me, showing his passport without any visa or stamp. “I have to sent money to my family in Turkey and survive here, in Antakya.”

Jacques works as goldsmith and carpenter. “In the camps you cannot work. You just pray, eat and drink.”

The camps are not safe places for Christians anymore.

In 2013, the Turkish government has decided to build a dedicated refugee camp for Christians, to separate them from Sunni Muslim and avoid sectarian clashes. “Nowadays it’s easier being Muslim than being Christian,” says Jacques.


 

"While the fighting is raging, only 100,000 Christian are still living in Aleppo.
Their population halved
since the beginning of the war."

Once Jacques and I finish talking, Ziad wants me to meet two other Catholic refugees: Corc and George.
Corc is a tall, brawny Turk, who owns a hair salon.

His family had been in Antakya for the past 200 years, he says proudly. He is giving shelter to his Syrian cousin, George, who fled the violence engulfing Aleppo.

When the war started, he got a Turkish visa to attend his niece’s marriage.
He never went back to Syria.“I call them Free Syrian dogs! If Jabhat Al-Nusra takes power, our women will wear hijabs!” he shouts, when I ask him about the rebels.

In Aleppo, the frontlines carved in concrete and rubbles divide the city in two parts.

The Christians neighborhood of Sulaimanie, Siryan and Azizeh are right on this lines, in the middle of the firestorm.

According to unofficial reports, the FSA destroyed two churches, while launching mortar shells on the Sulaimanie district, where George used to live. “They kill people every day,” he tells me.


 

“The rebels are criminals.
They steal from the poor
to get rich. [...]"

While the fighting is raging, only 100,000 Christian are still living in Aleppo. Their population halved since the beginning of the war.

Soon, the conversation turns into their personal defence of “Bashar”. Both argue that there was no threat to the Christians before the war.

For George, Assad is a great leader because: “Christians were his priority. Now, we are not safe anymore.”At one point, they want me to photograph something.

They bring me to the back of their shop, where a tall bag full of white powder is leaning on the wall. “We bought it for 18 Turkish Lira [£5],” George tells me.

The bag contains 50 kilograms of sugar, part of the humanitarian aid the Turkish government is sending into Syria to support the refugees. “The FSA took the food supplies and smuggled them back into Turkey for profit.”

The war is going on and the resistance has to find alternative resources to keep on fighting. “The rebels are criminals. They steal from the poor to get rich. People in Aleppo need water and fuel.

They stole everything – shouts George – They are dogs! Dogs!”Food and fuel bought in Syria and sold in Turkey for double the prize, are the most precious items the rebels can put their hands on.

With the winter looming and with the humanitarian supplies being hijacked, the destiny of the refugees – no matter whether Christian or Muslim – remains uncertain.

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