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Fleeing For Lebanon, Syrian Christians Are Stranded Between Regime And Rebels

Article illustrative image Partner logo A Syrian refugee who has just crossed the border into Lebanon

BEIRUT - Elias, a 42-year-old Syrian, is chain smoking under the silent gaze of his children. This Christian farmer abandoned his lands, near the Lebanese border, leaving behind conflicts he felt had nothing to do with him, but tormented by the future of Syria and the fate of his minority religion there.

Together with 20 members of his family, he fled the clashes between the insurgents and Bashar-Al-Assad's forces, and the "thugs who are taking advantage of the chaos." Since then he has settled at his parents' in Zahleh, a city in the Lebanese Bekaa governorate that is mostly Christian. With his family, he is one of the handful of Christians among the approximately 37,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Elias gets flustered when asked about the position of Christians in Syria. They represent five to 10 percent of the population and are often described as close to the Assads -- or at the very least, passive. Elias says his home village, Rableh, is "100 percent Christian and 100 percent pro-Assad." Then he corrects himself: "Christians in Syria are neutral. They are neither with the regime nor with the rebels.”

The farmer never subscribed to the uprising. "At the beginning of the movement, I attended demonstrations in Homs or Al-Qusayr," -- his village is near these two insurgent cities -- "But I didn't identify with it. It isn't a multi-religious movement. Most Christians and Alawites stayed home," he says. "I don't want the war."

Yet among the icons of the revolution, there are Christians like Bassel Shéhadé. This young filmmaker was killed on May 28 in Homs where he was filming the uprising and the repression. His funeral in Damascus was banned by the regime.

In Bauchrieh, Beirut's Christian suburb, images of the Virgin Mary and a cross decorate the living room of a tiny two-room apartment where two Syrian families squeeze in together. Georges, 18, and Tony, 16, find it hard to talk. "It would have been simpler if there hadn’t been an uprising," finally says the eldest. "Everything would have stayed the way it was, the way we were used to."

The two Christian orthodox brothers witnessed the regime assaults on their city, Zabadani, which is west of Damascus near the Lebanese border. They saw their father die under loyalist bombs during the winter of 2011. "When he died, after the bombings and the unjust civilian deaths, we finally opened our eyes and realized we had supported the regime because we were afraid," says Tony. "We didn't go down to protest in the street, but in our hearts, we had joined the revolution."

Manipulated by the regime

Now orphans (their mother died when they were little), Tony and Georges took back sideroads to cross the border with their sister Mariam, 20, her baby and her husband. The young woman is angry. "When we heard the stories about the Christians in Homs, we were scared," she says. "There were rapes, kidnappings. The regime blamed the rebels, but it was more likely shabiha (pro-regime militias). For months, the regime tried to terrorize Christians, by fueling rumors that Sunnis and rebels were going to slit our throats. The regime manipulated us."

In the house in Zahleh, Elias' mother also speaks of "atrocities committed by rebels against Christians in Homs." She says she is scared, but Elias doesn't let her finish. "The conflict isn't between Sunnis and Alawites, or Sunnis and Christians, but between pro and anti-regime. The "atrocities" mother is talking about -- the kidnappings in Al-Qusayr of relatives of Christians working for the regime forces --  "don't happen because you are Christian, but because you are with the regime.”

In his village, Elias saw many insurgents who came to stock up on supplies. He rejects the regime rhetoric, which accuses Islamist gangs of being responsible for the uprising. "There are a few fundamentalists among the rebels, guys we'd never seen before. But the demonstrators are people like you and me, not extremists. They belong to the Sunni majority, which wants to reclaim its rights as a majority," he says. 

Most of the Syrian Catholic Churches hierarchy supported the regime for a long time, before showing more restraint, most notably after the Vatican expressed worries. In Bauchrieh, Mariam is convinced that "the bishops want to save their hides." "That's why they say nothing about the repression," she says. "But not all of them are with the regime."

Elias believes that the number of victims (more than 23,000, according to opposition activists) is "exaggerated," and hopes that "Bashar's regime will stay in place, because otherwise it will be a real civil war."

For his part, young George dreams of a return to stability. "I'm not afraid of power returning in the Sunni majority's hands, as long as the future state is fair," he says. 

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