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Rebels threaten two Syria Christian towns

Patriarch urges peace in impasse over expulsion of regime forces

AFP-JIJI, AP

Islamist rebels warned two Christian towns on Saturday they will be attacked if they do not evict regime forces, but the new Greek Orthodox patriarch said Syria’s often-fearful Christians will stay put and urged a peaceful end to the conflict.

Yet a key opposition group said Syria’s conflict is not a sectarian one, contradicting warnings earlier in the week by a U.N. team that increasing sectarianism is threatening whole communities.

In a video message to the Hama provincial towns of Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh, one of seven men armed with Kalashnikovs warned residents to expel gangs of (President Bashar) “Assad and ‘shabiha’ (proregime militia) from your towns and convince them not to bomb our villages and families.”

“If not, we will immediately attack the hideouts of Assad’s gangs and shabiha,” added the man, who identified himself as Rashid Abul Fida, head of the Al-Ansar Brigade in Hama.

Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Director Rami Abdel Rahman said the towns both had prewar populations in the tens of thousands but that most of their residents have already fled.

As the news circulated, Syria’s new Greek Orthodox leader called in Damascus for Christians to remain in the country despite the conflict.

Patriarch of Antioch and All the East Yuhanna X Yazigi also appealed to warring parties to renounce violence “in all its forms” and to start a process of dialogue.

In his first press conference since succeeding Ignatius IV Hazim, who died on Dec. 5, he said, “We Christians are here in the country and we will stay here.

“We believe that Christ is always present in this region, which is where Christianity was born.”

The patriarch sought to play down dangers faced by Christians.

“What is happening to us is happening to others, too. We are in the same situation as everyone else, Muslims and Christians, shoulder to shoulder, facing the difficulties,” he said.

There are some 1.8 million Christians in Syria.

Many have remained neutral in a conflict that erupted in March 2011 and has killed an estimated more than 44,000 people. Others, fearing a rise of Islamism, have taken Assad’s side.

Clashes between troops and rebels in the central city of Homs, Syria’s third largest, have already displaced tens of thousands of Christians, most of whom either fled to the relatively safe coastal areas or to neighboring Lebanon.

The messages came two days after U.N. investigators described the 21-month conflict as “overtly sectarian in nature.”

The team investigating human rights abuses in Syria accused anti-Assad militants of hiding among the civilian population, triggering strikes by government artillery and the air force.

In response, the opposition Syrian National Council, hit out against the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria, saying the “revolution is neither sectarian nor bloody.”

“The only division that Syrian society is witnessing is between a bloodthirsty, oppressive regime . . . and people calling for freedom and equality,” said the SNC, whose chief, George Sabra, comes from a Christian background.

On Thursday, the commission said the conflict threatened whole communities, and warned that newly formed armed Islamist groups were increasingly operating independently of the main rebel force, the Free Syrian Army.

Fabrice Balanche, director of the French research center Gremmo, says 80 percent of Syrians are Sunnis, around 10 percent belong to Assad’s Alawite community, 5 percent are Christian, 3 percent are Druze and 1 percent are Ismaili.

Meanwhile, there was no letup of violence, as a car bomb in the northeast Damascus district of Qaboon killed five people, the Britain-based Observatory said.

And Haidar al-Sumudi, a cameraman for state television was gunned down outside his Damascus home, the broadcaster said.

Elsewhere, warplanes carried out airstrikes on several flash points, among them the eastern province of Deir Ezzor and Homs in the center of the strife-torn country, the Observatory said.

The Observatory said that at least 55 people were killed in violence across Syria on Saturday.

Despite Syria’s raging war, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that he believed “no one has an appetite for external intervention” in the country’s long-time ally.

“I even have the feeling that they are praying for Russia and China to continue blocking permission for external intervention. Because if there is such a decision, they will have to act, and no one is ready to act,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov also said Assad’s regime is still in control of chemical weapons.

The United States said earlier this month it had intelligence showing that the regime was considering using its chemical weapons and issue a stark warning against any such action.