SEDNAYA, Syria – This prosperous hillside town northwest 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 – from 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.”
Twelve miles away, on the southeast fringes of the capital, Shiite militiamen, including a contingent of fighters from the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, spearhead the defense of the golden-domed shrine said to house the remains of the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
“We will forfeit our blood and lives for Sayyida Zainab,” said 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. Last month, according to both pro-opposition and government reports, rebels 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.
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 eviction or death as their fate if they do not resist now. They simply 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, aka the Whale, who heads the self-defense effort here. “They will kill us all.”
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 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, torching 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, sitting in his restaurant, sipping espresso. “But Syria’s Christians are not running away anywhere. We are fighting.”