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Syria's Christians Caught Between Rebels, Regime's Soldiers

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Syria's minority Christians are caught in the middle of that country's civil war. Many members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East are fleeing the country. Those who stay say they fear they will be targeted by Islamist militants, a growing force among rebels fighting the Assad regime. NPR's Deborah Amos traveled from Turkey to visit one Christian community in Syria where rebels and Christians are finding ways to work together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROWING)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: To get to the Christian villages of northern Syria you have to cross a river. There's no official border post here, just a dirt track to the banks of the Orontes River and a rowboat. It's the way Saint Paul may have traveled when he introduced Christianity here centuries ago. This is the way that people get back and forth. We've seen mattresses, flour, blankets, refugees.

This is the route to Qnieh, a Christian village in the fertile green mountains overlooking the river. This corner of Syria fell to the rebels a month ago. The Syrian army retreated further south. Now rebels control checkpoints along a road cratered by artillery shells. These rebels are Sunni Muslims from surrounding villages. They check our car outside the cobblestone courtyard of St. Joseph's Church, built in 1878. There are no weapons allowed inside the white stone church.

Father Hannah Jalloul, a Franciscan priest, makes sure of that.

Many Christians are very, very afraid of the rebels. Are Christians here afraid of them?

FATHER HANNAH JALLOUL: (Through translator) There is always fear of anything new, so it's natural. But all the rebels are from our area, from our region. So these are our sons.

AMOS: As we talk, the shelling in a nearby town gets louder. The fight for this part of Syria is far from over. Hundreds of civilians - Sunni Muslims - have come to this Christian village for shelter. Father Jalloul helps organizes food and blankets for the displaced. The booms reminds him of the recent fight for Qnieh.

JALLOUL: (Through translator) We can say that here our village was between the hammer and the anvil. Rebels from one side and the regular army from the other side.

AMOS: Father Jalloul calls the rebels his sons but he also says army soldiers are his brothers. It's a diplomatic answer for a priest who knows that Syria's Christians walk an uneasy road between these two forces. But the rebels are here. Those sons live right up the road.

We are in the kitchen of the one Sunni Muslim family that's lived in this village for decades. The eldest son, Munir, joined the rebels. He fought the Syrian army in street battles for days. His mother, Faida Haj Khalid, prepares lunch and shows me a boarded up window where a sniper's bullet broke the glass.

FAIDA HAJ KHALID: (Through translator) It was heavy fighting and that's why we put this board. And you can even see the houses of other neighbors; it's full of bullets.

AMOS: She shared food with those neighbors when only rebels could get in supplies. Christians and Muslims have gotten along for generations here, she says.

In another room, Faida's son and daughters are celebrating.

(LAUGHTER)

AMOS: Jody, a music teacher, leads the freedom chants from the early days of protest.

JODY: Everybody, everybody happy now.

AMOS: Because the army's gone?

JODY: Happy very much.

AMOS: But these days freedom means little more than the freedom to walk outside again and gather the family for a long lunch now that the fighting has stopped.

There's been 30 days of relative quiet. And for first time Father Jalloul and others in Qnieh are planning for the future. He heads a local council to replace regime officials now gone. These local governments have formed in rebel-held areas all over northern Syria, but this is a first for a Christian town.

So this is a Christian council?

JALLOUL: No, Christian and Muslim.

AMOS: So it's both?

JALLOUL: Yeah.

AMOS: In this town?

JALLOUL: Yeah.

(Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Two and two?

JALLOUL: Yeah. Yeah.

AMOS: Half-half.

JALLOUL: Half-half.

AMOS: Father Jalloul walks down the hall past photographs portraying the church's recent past. But a dusty glass case filled with ancient mosaics says more about the reason he stayed through the fighting. Our roots are here, he says, in this village from the first century of Christianity in what is now Syria.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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