Syria's Christian Minority Lives in Fear of Kidnapping and Street Battles

War-weary from months of fighting, one community attempts to co-exist with rebel militias.
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The bell tower of a church in Ras al-Ayn, which was used as a base for snipers. (Danny Gold)

George Abdulahad stood on his balcony in the Syrian city of Ras al-Ayn filling in bullet holes with plaster. His apartment, like many in the Christian neighborhood, lay gutted, the walls destroyed by an RPG or some sort of incendiary device. The fighting had been over for nearly a month now, but Abdulahad still seemed devastated by his newfound homelessness. "Where can I go, I don't know," said the 58-year-old man. "There is no electricity, no water. The living here is like living in a coffin."

On Easter Sunday, the churches that follow the traditional Christian calendar in this Syrian border town lay empty. They haven't had services for four months, and most of their congregations have fled or are picking through the rubble. Some fear that another round of fighting will break out. A recent spate of kidnappings has also cast a shadow over the Christian residents of this diverse city in northeastern Syria.

During the last phase of the fighting, in which the FSA fought the YPG, Abdulahad lay trapped in his apartment for 17 days, subsisting on very little water and stale bread.

Those still left in the city feel defenseless among the current vacuum of authority. Despite a truce currently in place, the constant presence of heavily armed rebel soldiers from different warring factions does little to assuage their fears. "There are so many battles in this city, I don't feel safe. There is no one in charge, no government," Abdulahad says. "I am afraid of anyone with a gun."

Starting in November, roughly four months of fighting devastated the city. The Free Syrian Army, along with Islamist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra, attacked Assad regime soldiers. After regime soldiers were forced out, the rebel coalition then battled the Kurdish militia known as the Popular Defense Forces (YPG), They fought pitched battles throughout the city streets as the Assad regime continued to send aircrafts on bombing runs.

During the last phase of the fighting, in which the FSA fought the YPG, Abdulahad lay trapped in his apartment for 17 days, subsisting on very little water and stale bread. Many residents fled the city, with some activists speculating that 65 percent of the total population had left. In February, Syrian Christian dissident Michel Kilo brokered peace between the factions. Some residents have returned, despite power cuts, water shortages, and the constant presence of various armed fighters.

Ras al-Ayn, located along the border with Turkey, is a city of 50,000 with a diverse population of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens, and it's home to three Christian churches. Christians make up an estimated 10 percent of Syria's 23 million citizens. Issam Bishara, regional director of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, recently told Asia News that approximately 300,000 Syrian Christians have fled the country. The increased sectarianism in the conflict, especially the growing influence of Jihadi forces, has left many fearful of what's to come.


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The mural on the front door of a local church. It has not held services in four months and most of the congregation has fled. (Danny Gold)

Prior to the conflict, many saw Ras al-Ayn as a beacon of tolerance between Muslims and Christians. Residents say that they there is still a camaraderie among the citizens that live there, but that problems arise from those fighting who don't live in the city, be they FSA, YPG, or Islamists.

At one of the damaged churches, the caretaker said that 25 local Muslims had come to the church after the fighting stopped to help clean up. Near a small cluster of shops just down the road from where the last airplane strike hit, a group of shopkeepers drinking tea discussed the unity of the city. "I am 62 years old, a son of this city," said one. "I lived in a city with Kurds and Arabs and Christians, from the old days when the mosque was side by side with the Church. It didn't matter, we lived like brothers."

"I lived in a city with Kurds and Arabs and Christians, from the old days when the mosque was side by side with the Church. It didn't matter, we lived like brothers."

Residents were hesitant to speak of Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda-linked jihadi group and most powerful Islamist faction in Syria, which has established a base on the other side of town. Some claimed not to be perturbed by their presence, though it's hard to tell if they were being truthful or simply feared reprisal for negative comments. Two Assyrian Christian brothers, Ziad, 50, and Najeem, 64, work on a border checkpoint with the FSA and some of the Islamist factions. "I have no problem with Jabhat Al-Nusra, is better than Bashar [al-Assad] 100 times," Ziad said. "They don't attack us or send airplanes. They are like the FSA, they will bring justice."

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Danny Gold is freelance journalist based in Brooklyn. His work focuses on breaking news, crime, and conflict. 

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