Syria's Christians cautious in conflict

File picture of a church dome seen through the broken window of the Sednaya Convent  in Sednaya, north of Damascus

Near the small town of Zabadani, a group of rebel fighters sing a song addressed to the Syrian president's mother.

"Oh Bashar's mother," they chant, "your husband's being fried in hell. You and your son are following too."

The men are in good spirits. They have been driven back from the capital, but their offensive did better than anyone expected. And they are preparing for another go.

What if the rebels win? I went to see the people with as much at stake as anyone in the final outcome here, Zabadani's Christians.

Father Anton al-Houri, head of the Orthodox community in Zabadani, is 80 years old, grey-bearded, dignified, wearing a stovepipe hat, cassock and gold chain with crucifix that rests on an ample stomach.

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We Christians suffered from the same lack of freedom as everyone else, we suffered from the same corruption - now, we are under the same shell fire”

End Quote Zabadani man

He is planted firmly in an ornate chair - but still manages to do a good impression of a man on a tightrope.

"Do Christians in Zabadani support the revolution?" I ask.

"It's up to every individual," he says.

"Would you advise a young man to join the army or the rebels?"

"I don't advise him either way - only on what he does in church," he replies.

"What do you say in your sermons about the uprising?"

"I stick to the Bible."

And so on. Father al-Houri could keep this up all day. I switch off my recorder and he shows me the hole in the church roof made by government artillery.

A young man with him says: "We Christians suffered from the same lack of freedom as everyone else. We suffered from the same corruption. Now, we are under the same shell fire."

Another man adds: "Whatever the collective opinion is in Zabadani, we will follow it."

That is the point - not to become dangerously isolated from wider society in Zabadani. The town has some 5,000 Christians and another 30,000 Sunni Muslims.

When I ask Father al-Houri about the numbers, he declares, rhetorically: "You have 35,000 Muslims here and, if you recount, you will have 35,000 Christians. We are all one great national sect. We are one body. We live and we die together."

Religious tensions

Zabadani supported the revolution. Therefore, tentatively, so did Father al-Houri. He had avoided almost every question, but he was never more cautious than when I asked him about the Islamist fighters in the town.

There are, of course, two rival Free Army groups in Zabadani, one more secular, while the other are Salafis, conservative Islamists. They are the biggest group because they are getting guns and money from outside.

They are mostly young and wear beards in the Jihadi style.

"Eighty per cent of Syria is Muslim," says Ali, a small but tough-looking man who had been a blacksmith.

"We won't accept a non-Muslim to rule over us."

Ahmad, a 24-year-old former lawyer disagrees: "We could have a Christian president here. Why not? That's democracy."

I wonder if this is what he thought I wanted to hear, but the two men soon forget about me and continue their argument.

The Salafis are commanded by Abu Adnan, a wild-looking man with a jet black beard and long hair worn slicked back. He was a shopkeeper and before that had done a degree in Islamic studies.

"Everybody is pushing towards the capital. That is where this will end," he says.

With shells still falling on Zabadani, he bitterly accuses Western countries of doing nothing while people die.

"There is a conspiracy against the Syrian people," he says.

"But we depend on God and with God's will and by our own hand, we will get our freedom."

For now, all the armed groups are united around the single goal of overthrowing the regime.

After that, though, they will have to settle the question of how religious, how Islamic a state the new Syria will be.

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