A Christian soldier in Syria: 'We have to defend our community'

Photo of a bell tower in the Valley of the Christians, situated in the Homs region. The famous “Krak des Chevaliers ” crusader castle, currently held by the Jihadist group Jund al-Sham, is visible in the background. The inscription says, “Our bells will keep on ringing”.
 
 
While the Syrian rebels believe the country’s Christians support president Bashar al-Assad, until recently, they had not directly taken part in the conflict. However, the rise to power of jihadist rebels — and an increase in violence against their community — has caused some Christians to join the fight. Below, we provide an exclusive interview with an officer in a Christian unit fighting alongside the regular Syrian army.
 
Christians have been feeling increasingly threatened by the acute sectarianism of the Syrian conflict. Much of the Christian community of the city of Homs has fled. They are being pounded by rebel artillery in the Jarmana neighbourhood (a Damascus suburb), their stronghold in Maaloula (in northeastern Damascus) was attacked, and their churches in Ar-Raqqah have been pillaged. All these recent developments are causing Christians to take up arms to defend their cities and towns.
 
The Christian volunteer soldiers are fighting mainly in the ranks of the National Defence Committees, which are armed and trained by the Syrian regime. One of these units, the “Lions of the Valley”, is predominantly Christian and is led by a Christian commander. John (not his real name) is one of the officers of this unit, which is operating in Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of the Christians) in the Homs region.
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“Before the war … I focused mainly on my family and volunteering at my church”

John (not his real name) is a Christian officer fighting in a national defence unit that is primarily made up of Christian fighters.
 
Before the war, I worked in the tourism industry, like many people in my region. I focused mainly on my family and volunteering at my church.
 
Even though I had no previous military experience, I was among the first to join the popular committees, even before they became the National Defence Committees. I did this because, from the start, I knew that this was how it would all turn out. I fought in several big battles; during a battle at Menagh airport, one of my cousins was killed.
 
I tried to encourage the men from my village and nearby villages to join up as well. But they weren’t very receptive, as they didn’t feel concerned by what was going on. All the while, an increasingly large number of Lebanese and Palestinian Jihadists were crossing the border to come support the rebels.
 
“I am Christian and the majority of my men are Christian, but I am not the leader of a Christian militia”
 
From week to week, the number of kidnappings and attacks against civilians was increasing rapidly. All the inhabitants of the region, whether Christian or Muslim, could clearly see that criminals were taking advantage of the reigning chaos to loot and kidnap innocent people. This ended up pushing many of our young men to join the ranks of the National Defence Committees.
 
 
My unit’s range extends over 42 villages, including 33 Christian villages. Our men are all residents of the region; they were trained and equipped by the Syrian army. All volunteers receive the same benefits as any Syrian soldier, including support for their families. My unit works closely with the Syrian Chief of Staff , from whom we receive our daily orders.
 
The majority of the unit’s men are Christian, it is not a Christian militia. Among the men, there are Alawites and Sunnis as well. For example, the men in charge of artillery are all Sunnis from the village of Hosn.
 
Several rebel groups are active in our region: the Free Syrian Army, Jund al-Sham, which is a group of jihadists from Lebanese Palestinian camps, and the Al-Nusra Front [close to Al Qaeda]. Since there are all these different groups, we have a hard time negotiating lasting ceasefires. As a result, there is more and more fighting, both day and night.
 
 
These groups have been able to replenish their supplies and hold their positions for over a year now. We lack the means to force them out, but we are trying to do damage control and protect the population. And we are not alone. There is an entire brigade from the Syrian army and the intelligence services situated in the region. The rebels have managed to stay because they have taken advantage of corrupt officers within our ranks [posted at the border] that allow arms and munitions to go through in exchange for a bribe.
 
Religious leaders in our region are very reticent to openly support us, which I completely understand. We must leave the door open for negotiations, because in the end we will all have to sit around a table and talk. But for the time being, our religious authorities and our community members know very well that we can only count on ourselves to defend our region.
 
Arabic and Armenian Christians (about 1 million people) make up 4.6% of the Syrian population; together with other religious minorities - Alawite, Druze, Shia, and Ismaili minorities - the percentage goes up to 20%. The Sunnis, who spearheaded the rebellion, account for 72% of the Syrian population, and the Kurdish minority makes up about 8% of the population.
 
Though Syria's rebels believe most Christians support the government, not all of them are on its side: several well-known Christian individuals are active within the opposition.
 
The plight of Iraqi Christians, who were forced to flee to Syria following the fall of Saddam Hussein, is still very fresh in the memory of Syria’s Christian community, which initially tried to adopt a neutral stance in the war. Many Christians fear the same fate if the rebels win, because the opposition is dominated by Sunni Muslims.
 
The latest report by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights Violations in Syria , which was mandated by the United Nations and was published on September 11, denounces the “crimes against humanity” committed by government forces, but also the “war crimes” committed by the armed opposition.
 
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).
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