DAMASCUS: Sami Amir is used to the deep, echoing rumble of the Syrian army artillery pounding rebel positions on the outskirts of Damascus. It’s the thump of mortar bombs launched from an Islamist-controlled neighborhood that scares him to death. The mortar bombs have repeatedly hit in his mainly Christian district of Damascus, Qassaa, killing at least 32 people and injuring dozens of others the past two weeks.
“You don’t know when and you don’t know where they hit,” says Amir, a 55-year-old Christian merchant. “Life here is often too difficult.”
Rebel shelling into the capital hits predominantly in several majority-Christian districts, particularly Qassaa, with its wide avenues, middle class apartment blocks, leafy parks, popular restaurants and shopping streets busy with pedestrians.
The shelling and recent rebel assaults on predominantly Christian towns have fueled fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists and foreign fighters among the rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad’s rule. Christians believe they are being targeted – in part because of the anti-Christian sentiment among extremists and in part as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad.
Some Christians oppose Assad’s brutal crackdown on the opposition and the community has tried to stay on the sidelines of the civil war. But the rebellion’s increasingly outspoken Islamist rhetoric and reliance on extremist fighters have pushed them toward support of the government. Christians make up about 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million people.
“When you bring a Christian and make him chose between Assad and the Islamic State in Iraq and [Greater Syria], the answer is clear,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, referring to the Al-Qaeda branch fighting alongside the rebels. “It doesn’t need much thinking.”
A week ago, rebels from the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front attacked the Christian town of Sadad, north of Damascus, seizing control until they were driven out Monday after fierce fighting with government forces. The rebels appear to have targeted the town because of its strategic location near the main highway north of Damascus, rather than because it is Christian.
Similarly, thousands fled the ancient Christian-majority town of Maaloula when rebels took control of it last month, holding it for several days until government forces retook it. With rebels still in the hills around the town, those who fled are still too afraid to return.
Two bishops were abducted in rebel-held areas in April, and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, went missing in July after traveling to meet Al-Qaeda-linked militants in the rebel-held city of Raqqa. None has been heard from since.
In August, rebel gunmen killed 11 people in a drive-by shooting in central Syria as Christians celebrated a feast day. Activists said at the time that many of those killed were pro-government militiamen manning checkpoints.
Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized. In Raqqa, militants set fires in two churches and knocked the crosses off them, replacing them with the group’s black Islamist banner. The campaign against Christians and other minorities has stoked worries in Washington and many European capitals over providing advanced weaponry to the mainstream rebel Free Syria Army, amid fears the arms will end up in the hands of extremists.
Christians in Damascus are convinced that extremists are deliberately targeting their neighborhoods as rebels battle government forces trying to uproot them from the towns they control outside the capital. Qassaa is close to besieged rebel-held suburbs where Muslim residents have pleaded for international help to save them from starvation and constant government bombardment.
“Recently I noticed that every Sunday, they launch more than 15 mortars a day,” Amir said. “They are targeting specifically Christian areas.”
The most recent bombs in Qassaa hit Thursday on the doorstep of a clothing shop and next to a wall of a local hospital, killing three young men and damaging a church and several cars, which were left riddled by shrapnel.
Hundreds of Christians have fled Qassaa to other areas of the capital or into Lebanon. Nationwide, some 450,000 Christians have fled their homes, part of an exodus of some 7 million during the two-and-a-half-year civil war, according to church officials.
Almost all the 50,000 Christians in the mixed city of Homs have left, and another 200,000 have fled the northern city of Aleppo, both battleground cities. When insurgents occupied the strategic central town of Qusair in 2012, about 7,000 Catholics were forced out and their homes were looted.
Thousands who fled Maaloula have found refuge in Qassaa and other Christian districts of Damascus. Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the civil war, home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Some of the residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus Christ.
Youssef Naame and his wife Norma, an elderly Christian couple from Maaloula, described how bearded Islamist extremists stormed the northeastern village early last month chanting “God is Great!”
“The jihadists shouted: ‘Convert to Islam, or you will be crucified like Jesus,’” Youssef said with a shaky voice as he sat in his daughter’s Qassaa apartment.
He said they were trapped with other Christians for three days in a small house next to the town church, without food or electricity.“There were snipers shooting everywhere, we were not able to move,” he recalled. “We were so scared. I lost my speech.”
The rebels have targeted other Syrian minorities, particularly Alawites, who are the strongest supporters of Assad, himself a member of the offshoot Shiite sect. Ethnic and religious minorities – also including Kurds and Druze – make up a quarter of Syria’s mainly Sunni Arab population.
Syrian Church leaders fear that Assad’s fall will lead to an Islamist state that ends the centuries-old existence of Christians on Syrian soil.
“We are not taking any sides in the conflict,” said Bishop Luka, deputy leader of the Syriac Orthodox Church, speaking from his headquarters in historic Old Damascus.
“We are standing alongside the country, because this country is ours,” he said. “If the country is gone, we have nothing left. Nothing will remain of us.”