06/12/2013, 00.00
SYRIA

United for reconciliation with Muslims, Christians return to al-Qusair

For months, the town's 3,000 Christians lived in neighbouring villages. The first families arrived in the city shortly after the ouster of Islamic extremists by the regime. Muslims themselves accuse the rebels of stirring sectarian hatred in Syria. Along with the shrine of St Elijah, the local mosque was destroyed as well.

Al-Qusair (AsiaNews) - After fleeing to surrounding villages and the capital Damascus, Christians from al-Qusair are returning to their homes after almost two years. Many have lost everything; some have started to remove rubble from rooms and rebuild roofs, bringing life back to a city that in recent months had lost more than 90 per cent of its population, going from 30,000 inhabitants to 500.

Sources told AsiaNews that in 2011 more than 3,000 Christians fled the city seeking refuge with relatives and friends. In recent months, the only non-Muslim residents was elderly Catholic couple, husband and wife. "The couple," they said, "did not know where to run. Their only daughter is a Melkite nun, who resides abroad. They were helped by their Muslim neighbours."

Media reports describe Syria as a place devastated by the conflict between Shias and Sunnis, which has also affected Christians. However, for sources the country was really devastated by outside forces, which have taken advantage of the instability and peaceful uprisings of 2011 to pursue their political and ideological agendas, which reached a peak with the intervention of Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shia paramilitary movement, fighting alongside the Syrian army.

Located on the border with Lebanon, al-Qusair was one of the first cities to organise pro-democracy demonstrations against the Assad regime and later set up a national committee to prevent clashes between religious factions.

"These committees," sources told AsiaNews, "saved several villages and towns, preserving them from the wave of Islamic extremism that has been causing destruction in the past few months in Aleppo and other towns in the country."

"In al-Qusair," they explain, "churches and mosques were built next to each other." An example is the shrine of St Elijah, which was recently desecrated by foreign Islamists, after surviving the fighting between local rebels and the army, who have always respected places of worship.

The outrage caused by the al-Nusra militia, which has fighters from 15 nations in its ranks, has aroused the anger of the population.

"It's a big shock to see something like this in a church," Osama Hassan, a Muslim and a government employee, told Reuters. "For us, a church is the same as a mosque."

A nearby mosque was also heavily damaged, parts of its minaret blasted away, he added.

For locals, Islamist fighters are to blame for sectarian divisions in the population, which includes Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as Christians.

"Here, the Christian and Muslim cemeteries are right next to each other," said one resident. "We never had divisions." (S.C.)

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