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By Edward Dark
ALEPPO, Syria — Walking through the largely Christian neighborhoods of Aleppo city — Azizieh, Siryan, Sulaimaniyah and Midan — you can still see the posters of the two bishops kidnapped by Islamist militants last year hanging on shop windows, walls and even cars. The people here haven’t forgotten them; the event is still as painful and fresh as if it had happened just yesterday. The bishops’ kidnapping was a symbolic event, indicative of the larger collapse of interfaith communal relations in a country under the strain of a sectarian civil war, and marked the end of a long era of relative peace and safety for the Christians of Syria.
The streets themselves portray a deceptive and surreal kind of war “normalcy,” the kind where pockmarked buildings, mortar holes on the roads, shredded cars, even bloodstained sidewalks are the usual and expected sights as people go about their daily lives without a second glance. This is life now, this is reality here. What it was like before the war is no longer relevant, the memories of those distant and beautiful bygone days do not matter or factor in any more.
Fear is palpable in this city; it hangs heavy in the air everywhere you go, like a potent and nauseous perfume. You can see it in people’s eyes, in the deep lines on their faces; you can hear it in the way they talk; it’s in their conversations, it’s all they ever talk about.
But fear of a new kind permeates this ancient and deeply rooted community. Genocide and ethnic cleansing are very real threats that haunt the collective conscience of Syria’s Christians. The terrible fate that befell their co-religionists across the border in Mosul has driven these points home in a rather blunt and frightening way. The genocidal, nihilistic death cult of the Islamic State (IS) is hell-bent on destroying everything that is not exactly it, and has been on an unstoppable rampage which has left a trail of decapitated bodies and mass graves in its wake, usually those of ethnic and religious minorities. The militants make no secret of their genocidal campaigns of mass murder and medieval violence; on the contrary, they openly celebrate with glee and revel in them. It is not a means to an end; for them, it is the end itself.
Yousef is a shopkeeper in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Sulaimaniyah, which has seen almost constant rebel shelling since the civil war divided Aleppo in July 2012. His brother serves in the Syrian army in Damascus. In conversation, he conveyed to me some of the predominant questions and anxieties going through his community.
“Why aren’t the moderate Muslims doing more to stop the extremists in their midst?” he asked bitterly. “Do they agree with their ideology and extremism? We saw hundreds of thousands of protesters on the streets against the abuses of the regime, so why are we not now seeing those thousands of protesters against what IS is doing? Worse, we are now seeing many people and rebel groups joining them. There are so many hundreds of these Islamic rebel groups, but they are all the same, they all have this extremist ideology against us. My conclusion is that these groups and IS are fully supported and backed in what they are doing by the anti-government forces.”
Photo: The Armenian Genocide memorial at the Forty Martys Armenian church in Aleppo, Syria.
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