Two Syria shrine towns: Worlds apart yet united in battle

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Sednaya is Christian and Sayyida Zainab is Shiite Muslim, both famous for their shrines. And both say they face constant threat from Sunni rebels hoping to evict or kill them.

This prosperous hillside town north of Damascus appears a universe away from another capital suburb, Sayyida Zainab, a cluttered, frenzied urban patch off the road to the international airport.

Sednaya is a Christian mountain bastion ringed by monasteries; Sayyida Zainab is a lowland Shiite Muslim island in the midst of a largely Sunni Muslim nation.

But, in war-ravaged Syria, the two are in a similar position: Both are renowned shrine towns whose residents say they live under constant threat of attack — even annihilation — by Islamist Sunni rebels active in the outskirts of each locale.

And both are fighting back.

Here in Sednaya, a cadre of Christian militiamen armed with AK-47 rifles and other weapons staff checkpoints and closely scrutinize everyone who comes and goes, day and night, coordinating closely with the Syrian military. The militia chief is a burly pizza shop owner who goes by the moniker “the Whale.”

About 12 miles away, on the southeast fringes of the capital, Shiite militiamen, including a contingent of fighters from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, head the defense of the golden-domed shrine said to house the remains of a granddaughter of the prophet Muhammad.

“We will forfeit our blood and lives for Sayyida Zainab,” says a brown-uniformed volunteer manning the checkpoint leading to the mausoleum, one of the most revered sites in the Shiite world.

From their bases in Turkey and Egypt, representatives of the U.S.-backed opposition coalition frequently proclaim that the mostly Sunni rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad do not target Syria’s Christian and Shiite minorities or their religious symbols. Several Christians are prominent in the exile-based leadership.

But reports of rebel sectarian onslaughts are mounting. According to both pro-opposition and government reports, rebels this month targeted an isolated Shiite community in the eastern Syrian town of Hatla, where dozens of civilians were reported killed, their homes burned and a Shiite shrine destroyed.

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Near Sednaya, in the insurgent stronghold of Adra, rebels this year dug up the remains of a revered Shiite figure, Hujr ibn Adi, a companion of Muhammad, and destroyed his shrine, long a pilgrimage site. The desecration unleashed a furor in Shiite communities across the globe.

In Qusair, the Roman Catholic Church of St. Elias was defaced during a more than yearlong rebel occupation of the town near the Lebanese border. During a recent visit, a reporter saw vandalized images of saints and Christ and graffiti scrawled on church walls berating “infidels.”

Residents of minority communities, such as the Christians of Sednaya, predict that eviction or death will be their fate if they do not resist now. They don’t buy the talk about democracy coming from Washington and other foreign capitals that support the rebels.

“If the terrorists come here, none of us will be left alive,” says Hussam Azar, a.k.a. the Whale, who heads the self-defense effort here. “They will kill us all.”

An epidemic of kidnappings has already traumatized Syria’s Christian community, which is less than 10% of the population. Two Christian bishops remain missing since being abducted in April while driving in rebel territory near Aleppo. Last week, a Catholic priest, Francois Murad, was slain in northern Syria when Islamic militants attacked the monastery where he was staying, according to Agenzia Fides, the Vatican news agency.

Though the opposition demonizes Assad as a killer, residents here and in other minority communities often view the embattled president and his army — complemented by a growing contingent of loyalist militiamen — as the last bulwark preventing so-called sectarian cleansing.

The Christians of Sednaya are only too aware of what happened to the ancient Christian community of neighboring Iraq, where, after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, Islamic militants unleashed a reign of terror against Christians, bombing churches, burning shops and assassinating community leaders. Much of Iraq’s Christian population fled, many to Syria, then still a beacon of stability and relative religious tolerance.

“The Christians of Iraq ran away,” says Azar, sipping espresso in his restaurant. “But Syria’s Christians are not running away anywhere. We are fighting.”

Up the hill from the town sits the sublime Byzantine-era Convent of Our Lady of Sednaya, one of the most venerated sites in the Orthodox world, a historic pilgrimage site for solitary monks and celebrated Knights Templar.

Before the warfare, Christians and Muslims alike regularly arrived on bus tours to visit the convent, credited in Orthodox tradition with providing miraculous healing. In an inner sanctum where the walls are covered with images of Christ, Mary and saints, is stored an icon of the Holy Mother and child that is said to safeguard the convent.

“We have survived many wars,” says a black-robed nun showing now-rare visitors around the hushed corridors. “God protects us.”

As she spoke, thunderous explosions could be heard outside, the result of bombardment by government artillery emplacements built into nearby hills. The shells target rebels entrenched a few miles away. Residents say Sednaya has often been targeted by rebel mortars from nearby villages, occasionally causing casualties.

In one instance, residents say, a rebel mortar shell hit the wall of the convent but failed to explode, leaving only a small hole.

Residents say the mortar attacks and abductions triggered the formation of a self-defense force, which has received weapons and training from the Syrian military, like similar loyalist militias elsewhere in Syria. Militiamen also vow to protect the convent. Many Syrian Christians here and elsewhere in the country are perplexed that the West has taken the side of the rebels, a position that has prompted no end of conspiracy theories in a nation steeped in dark speculation about the motivations of outside powers.

“I have a question for you,” Azar asks a visiting U.S. reporter. “Why does America want all the Christians out of the Middle East?”

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On the other end of the capital, Sayyida Zainab stands like a fortress. Entry is possible only via a checkpoint manned by Shiite militiamen. Fighters guard the perimeter. On several occasions, residents say, rebel mortars have targeted the shrine, never scoring a direct hit.

Battles still rage in mostly Sunni Muslim towns nearby. Before reaching the turnoff for Sayyida Zainab on the airport road, motorists from Damascus pass a stretch where apricot orchards alternate with rows of rubble-strewn streets and the hulks of destroyed apartment blocks, a testament to the ferocity of the fighting. Rebels have kidnapped some shrine-bound pilgrims, including a busload of Iranians, who were later released in a prisoner swap with rebels.

Once past the shrine’s outer security cordon, a visitor is transported to another world, a miniature version of Karbala and Najaf, the Shiite holy cities of Iraq. Rentals catering to the now-much-diminished pilgrim traffic boast extravagant names like the Lights of the Mehdi Hotel, referring to a Messiah-like figure in Shiite theology, and the Voyage of Hussein Suites, alluding to the revered Shiite Imam Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad and a central figure in Shiite belief.

From storefronts waft recorded ballads mourning the violent death of Hussein more than 1,300 years ago. Likenesses of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Revolution in Shiite Iran, stare down from posters. In the Hezbollah heartland of southern Lebanon, color posters in villages depict “martyrs” killed defending the shrine near Damascus.

The shrine itself, situated behind concrete walls, is a breathtaking assemblage of marble columns, mirrors, turquoise tiles and elements of gold and silver. Directly below the golden dome is the crypt thought to hold the remains of one of Muhammad’s granddaughters. The pious, including militiamen in fatigues, pray as they touch a railing that surrounds the tomb.

At the exit, a smiling security guard thanks a Western journalist for visiting and adds, “Please write that it’s nonsense that we kill and slaughter people.”

Back at the Christian enclave of Sednaya, Azar the militia leader says he empathizes with the people of Sayyida Zainab, whose religious practices are so different than his.

“We are both the same thing,” he says of the two shrine towns. “We are being attacked every day because we are loyal to the regime, and so are they.”

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