Middle East

Christian hostel in Aleppo has own view of jihadist rebels

Michael Oberi, 53, a Syrian Christian, talks with a rebel fighter in the courtyard of Mar Elias House, a church hostel for the indigent in the old City of Aleppo, on September 16, 2013. (AFP PHOTO JM LOPEZ)

ALEPPO, Syria: As social media websites abound with horror stories of jihadists murdering minorities in Syria, a group of elderly Christians in Aleppo and the rebels who care for them portray a different reality. They object to attempts, including by President Bashar Assad, to portray everyone fighting to overthrow the regime as jihadists seeking to eradicate anyone who is not an ultraconservative Sunni Muslim.

Once Syria’s commercial capital, the northern city of Aleppo is said to have had a Christian community of 20-30 percent, well over double the nationwide figure.

Today, only a small number remains, as people have fled the brutal fighting which has engulfed the city for more than a year.

Six of them live in Mar Elias House, a church hostel for the indigent in the Old City that was founded in 1863. It is exposed daily to the sounds of fighting only meters away as government forces seek to dislodge rebels who control the area.

Theirs are memories of a time in Syria when Christians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side, and they refuse to believe they are doomed to fall victim to sectarian violence.

The rebels protecting them, devout Muslims to the man, feel the same way.

“A lot of people hear news about how the Islamists are all from Al-Qaeda and are pursuing Christians or Alawites,” an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, said one hostel resident, 71-year-old Georgette Juri.

Not so, she protests.

The hostel is under the protection of the rebel Free Syrian Army and a brigade of Islamist fighters called Liwa al-Tawhid.

Michael Oberi, another resident, said: “Every morning the men of [Liwa al-Tawhid commander] Abu Ammar bring us bags of bread, and every fortnight they bring us flour, salt, rice and pasta.

“Thanks to them, we can move freely around the Old City without fear of radical Islamists, who have a strong presence in this part of Aleppo.”

Juri is even more to the point.

“Abu Ammar and his men ... watch over us. If they are the ones who kill Christians, why would they protect us?”

A few blocks away from Mar Elias, named after the Hebrew Prophet Elijah who is highly revered in Aleppo, is a Liwa al-Tawhid command post.

There, Abu Ammar said: “Christians are not our enemies. The Prophet [Mohammad] respected Christians, and so do we. We did so before the war, and we will afterward.”

Indeed, he says that when the brigade seized the Old City, Liwa al-Tawhid chief Haji Mara ordered his men to protect Mar Elias House.

“He knew it from before, because he lived in this part of the city, and he wanted us to treat them as if they were our own family.”

Seij Abu Mohammad is a Sunni cleric who acts as a sort of a chaplain to the fighters.

He says any fear among the Christians is the fault of the regime, which many blame for exaggerating stories of atrocities against them to undermine support for the uprising.

“We would never do anything to a Christian. We are all brothers,” Abu Mohammad said. “Islam teaches peace and respect.”

While acknowledging that there are jihadist militias who have murdered Christians, he expressed frustration with what he feels are misconceptions in the West.

“They think that just because we have long beards and pray we are all religious fanatics. They should learn that Islam preaches peace and respect.”

Looking ahead to the future, the residents of Mar Elias House are steadfast but wary.

Oberi’s wife, Sarb Magarian, said she hopes that “Syria doesn’t turn into another Iraq, where hatred becomes the norm,” with large numbers of Christians fleeing religious persecution.

“We won’t accept Islamists coming from abroad to impose their ideologies and doctrines on us. Before the revolution, all communities lived in peace and harmony, and that should continue after the war.”

But if push comes to shove, her husband is adamant.

“I will not leave my home for any reason. If Al-Qaeda comes to this house and threatens to kill me, they’d better keep their word, because only as a dead man will I go out that door.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 21, 2013, on page 10.

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