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Syria Christian refugees in Lebanon fear Islamist rebels

Christians, a minority in Syria, have in general tried to stay out of the conflict, but they fear Islamist rebels will target them, refugees in Lebanon say.

August 22, 2012|By Alexandra Sandels and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

"The nightmare for Christians is when the revolution took an Islamist face," said Mother Agnes Mariam, a Catholic nun and mother superior of a monastery in Homs province. "It is not the moderate Islam we know in Syria. We are talking about a kind of aggressive and impulsive Islam."

The nun, now in exile in Europe, has been an outspoken critic of what she calls abuses by rebel forces. Her views drew death threats that forced her to flee, she says. She denies opposition charges that she is an apologist and even an operative for the Assad government.

"I am against protecting death squads, fundamentalist factions coming to destabilize a country," she said in a telephone interview from Belgium. "No one knows where this change will take us."

Many opposition leaders have declared publicly that their goal is a secular, democratic Syria where the rights of all minorities are protected. They call voices like those of the nun's exaggerated and inflammatory

The uprising "is not against Christians or any minority," said George Sabra, a Christian opposition activist affiliated with the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group with close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organization that has emerged as a major player in post-revolutionary Egypt and Tunisia and seeks a similar role in Syria, where it has been banned for decades. "The Islamist current in Syria is a moderate one."

In battered Homs city, several hundred Christian families still live in various districts, said a Catholic priest who had been in the area last month. Outside the city, reports indicate, a string of Christian towns and villages remains largely untouched by the war, though populations have in some cases swelled with coreligionists fleeing violence elsewhere.

Christians in exile are waiting to see what happens, trying to eke out a living with odd jobs, dwindling savings and charity from church groups. If Assad falls, many see a bleak future.

"If we go back, we will live by ourselves and they by themselves," said one Christian laborer who fled Qusair last summer. "There will be a separation."

Sandels is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Rima Marrouch in Beirut contributed to this report.

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