YACOUBIYEH, Syria: During the battle over this hilltop village in northern Syria, many of its residents fled, leaving behind empty homes, damaged churches and a large statue of the Virgin Mary in the deserted town square – all relics of its Christian population.
Now Yacoubiyeh is one of the few minority-dominated communities captured by Syria’s rebels in the country’s nearly 2-year-old uprising, making it a key gauge of how the opposition fighters – mainly from Syria’s Sunni majority – deal with the country’s broad patchwork of religious and ethnic minorities.
The Muslim commander of the local rebel garrison appears to be trying to allay any fears among the roughly 2,500 Christian residents who have stayed in the village since the fighting in January, saying he won’t impinge on anyone’s rights.
But, like many rebel leaders now in charge of Syrian villages, he is making decisions according to a version of Islamic law that, though not strict, Christians could find constrictive.
“To each his freedoms,” said the commander, who goes by the nom de guerre Hakim, suggesting that Christians could drink alcohol in their homes, but not in public. “Personal freedom stops where the freedom of others begins.”
As the regime of President Bashar Assad battles a rebellion capturing increasing swathes of the country, the old order that governed relations between the country’s myriad sects and ethnicities is fraying.
Many of Syria’s minorities find themselves stuck in the middle, unsure which side poses the greatest danger. While outraged by the regime’s brutal efforts to quash the opposition, many find equally frightening the Islamist rhetoric of many rebels and their heavy reliance on extremist fighters.
At about 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million people, Christians form one of the largest religious minorities and have tried to stay on the sidelines. However, the opposition’s increasingly outspoken Islamism has kept many leaning toward the regime.
“I am not convinced that these people want freedom and democracy,” said Fadi, a Christian civil engineer from Damascus, voicing a common view that the rebels are led by extremists. “I sympathized with them at the start, but after all the destruction, killing and kidnapping, I prefer Bashar Assad.”
Like other Syrians interviewed for this article, he spoke on condition that only his first name be published for fear of retribution.
Syria’s population hails from a mix of ethnic and religious groups, a diversity reflecting their position at the crossroads of the Levant.
Some three-fourths of Syrians are Sunnis, but the country is also home to other Muslim groups such as Shiites, Druze and Alawites, as well as Christians and ethnic communities of Kurds, Armenians and others.
All coexisted with varying degrees of ease under Assad’s regime, founded more than four decades ago by his father, Hafez, and inherited by Bashar in 2000. The Assad family is Alawite, a Shiite offshoot sect that makes up about 13 percent of the population, and this community is the backbone of his regime, holding many senior posts.
But the Assads also made sure to bring Sunnis and members of other groups into some prominent positions in the government and military, and let them carve out lucrative sectors of trade.
But the uprising against Assad’s rule that began in March 2011 quickly became an outlet for long-suppressed grievances, mostly by poor Sunnis from marginalized areas. It has since escalated into an outright civil war.
So far, rebels have mainly taken control in Sunni majority areas. There, most commanders do not appear to be aggressively imposing religious puritanism, as insurgents in Afghanistan or Iraq have. Still, they fall back on Islamic law as the default way of resolving disputes and keeping order.
Sectarian violence is increasingly common. Recent weeks have seen clashes between Sunni and Shiite villages in central Syria, hundreds of sectarian kidnappings in the north and damage to Christian and Shiite religious sites after their capture by rebels.
Many rebels increasingly describe their cause in religious terms. Calls for freedom have been replaced by chants declaring Islam’s Prophet Mohammad “our leader forever.” Online videos have shown rebels smashing truckloads of alcohol bottles and mocking executed government soldiers as “rafideen,” a derogatory term for Shiites and Alawites. Many hard-line Sunnis consider Shiites infidels.
In Taftanaz, a Sunni town near two government-held Shiite enclaves in a rebel-dominated region, graffiti shows an ayatollah with a Grim Reaper’s head, labeled “The Truth of Shiism.”
Further stoking minority fears, Islamic extremists have risen in the rebel ranks. The Nusra Front, which the United States considers a terrorist group, has been at the forefront of most recent rebel victories.
Activists from minority sects who support the uprising have found themselves sidelined, sometimes by both the opposition and their own communities.
An activist from the city of Salamiya, where most residents belong to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam, said he had been organizing and filming anti-regime protests since early in the uprising but found that rebel websites preferred videos featuring the black flags associated with militant Sunni Islam.
Instead of joining the armed opposition, he and other activists struck deals with local officials to allow protests as long as they remained peaceful, he said. That worked well until Jan. 22, when a bomb attack on a carpet factory killed 36 people. Two weeks later, a second blast struck a military factory nearby, killing some 50 Salamiya residents, he said.
The Nusra Front claimed the first bombing, though many suspected that the regime planned the bombings to turn the Ismailis against the uprising. Indeed, many residents blamed the local activists for bringing the war to what had been a peaceful city, he said.
The activist still supports the uprising. But, he said, “I’m afraid that in the future we could get rid of Alawite dictatorship and get a Sunni dictatorship.” He too spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution.
The Kurds, Syria’s largest ethnic minority, have tried to use the security vacuum to increase their independence, often clashing with rebels who seek to “liberate” their areas.
The opposition’s political leadership, the Syrian National Coalition, has failed to build ties with minorities. It has few minority members, and those it does have are not considered leaders in their communities. The group also has no control over fighters on the ground.
“To Syria’s Christians, Assad is no savior, but he is seen by many as the gatekeeper holding back the floodwaters of sectarian retribution and religious persecution by Sunni militants,” said Ramzy Mardini, Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.
“For minorities, life after Assad looks gloomier and the political opposition is neither strong nor credible enough to make any genuine reassurances to them,” he said.
Rebels moved in to capture Yacoubiyeh and two neighboring villages, Judeida and Quniya – which together are home to several thousand Christians – in part because regime forces were shelling rebel-held areas from the communities. Those who fled appear to have done so mainly to escape the battle, though worries over the approaching rebels may have played a role.
Last month, residents met with Muslim clerics to discuss the status of Christians under the Islamic courts that rebels have organized. One villager said he didn’t want to be a “dhimmi” – a second-class citizen under Islamic law – but a Syrian with equal rights, said Mouaz Moustafa of the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, who organized the meeting.
The clerics responded that the courts were a “service” they provide in the absence of any other government, Moustafa said. They said stricter Shariah punishments, such as amputation of hands and stoning, had been suspended during wartime, and the courts would try to enlist civil judges to partner with the clerics.
Democratic elections after the regime’s fall, the clerics said, would ultimately determine the laws.
Analyst Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center cautioned against assuming that all members of sectarian groups think alike.
Even among Sunnis and Alawites, there is a range of views: Many want what they see as best for Syria not just for their own sect – whether that means Assad or the rebellion. It is also premature to talk of a Sunni takeover in Syria, he said, noting that many Sunnis don’t follow the extreme views held by some rebel fighters.
What is more likely, he said, is national fragmentation that leaves no structure able to handle tasks like rebuilding the economy and repatriating refugees.
“These are going to be massive issues,” he said.