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by Matthew Campbell

HE HAD just got married and his wife was about to give birth but this did not save Andrei Arbashe, a young Christian, from a horrific fate at the hands of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime earlier this month.

Syrian rebels empty bottles of alcohol in a drain in Aleppo after rebels stopped two trucks, found hundreds of bottles inside and arrested three truck drivers who remain in a police station waiting to be judged according to Islamic sharia law. Source: AFP

Syrian rebels empty bottles of alcohol in a drain in Aleppo after rebels stopped two trucks, found hundreds of bottles inside and arrested three truck drivers who remain in a police station waiting to be judged according to Islamic sharia law. Source: AFP

“They beheaded him, cut him into pieces and fed him to the dogs,” said Agnes-Mariam de la Croix, mother superior of the Monastery of St James the Mutilated between Damascus and Homs.

Forget the familiar Arab spring narrative about down-trodden masses taking on the forces of evil: the Syrian conflict appears to have entered a darker phase in which the rebels are committing atrocities against innocent civilians. It does not bode well for peace.

The people who chopped up Arbashe did not seem to need much of a motive: his brother had apparently been overheard complaining about the rebels behaving like bandits.

Sister Agnes-Mariam, who has been keeping a macabre scorecard of such atrocities, believes that his fault, in the eyes of his killers, was his Christian faith.

“The uprising has been hijacked by Islamist mercenaries who are more interested in fighting a holy war than in changing the government,” she told The Sunday Times on a recent visit to Paris. “It’s turned into a sectarian conflict,” she added. “One in which Christians are paying a high price.”

A highly educated Carmelite nun of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, Sister Agnes-Mariam fled Syria over the summer after being warned that she was on the rebels’ “blacklist” for abduction.

She has been on an international tour since then to warn the world about the uprising’s “extremist” drift as the conflict turns into a magnet for Islamist mercenaries from all over the world, including Britain.

The sectarian twist to the conflict has raised fears of Christian communities being destroyed as they have been in neighbouring Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Once the cradle of Christianity, the region today is turning into its grave, with Christians dwindling to a minority even in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem, Christ’s birthplace.

As the prospect of reconciliation between Syria’s ruling, minority Alawite sect and the overwhelmingly Sunni opposition grows more remote, 2m Christians are caught in the middle like “filling in a sandwich”, said Agnes-Mariam.

Some 300,000 have been displaced by the conflict. The better off have fled abroad but many more were driven from their homes at gunpoint, said the nun: 80,000 were forced out of the Homs region alone, she maintained.

One graphic example of the rebels’ strategy, she said, was their attack on the northern town of Ras al-Ayn on the Turkish border last month. They began it by entering the Christian quarter, telling people to leave and looting their houses.

“More than 200 families were driven out in the night,” she said. “Some of the refugees were abducted and their families had to pay ransom.”

Various Christian villages are living under the threat of “invasion” by rebels, meaning they will be expelled from their homes – or worse.

“People are afraid,” she said. “Everywhere the death squads stop civilians, abduct them and ask for ransom; sometimes they kill them. The destruction is everywhere.”

Just as the Egyptian Arab spring turned into a winter of discontent for the Coptic Christian community under an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, few expect Syria’s upheaval to improve the lot of Christians if the opposition’s national coalition, which is recognised by 130 countries as the legitimate government of Syria, takes power.

One of its most effective fighting forces is the Jabat al-Nusra, which has an ideology similar to al-Qaeda’s.

“They want to impose sharia,” said Agnes-Mariam, 60. “It’s a scandal that the free and democratic world is supporting extremists,” she added in a reference to western backing for the coalition.

Some have accused her of being a propagandist for the dictator Assad: her claim that rebel forces were responsible for the Houla massacre in which more than 100 civilians died, half of them children, has been challenged by a United Nations commission of inquiry, which blamed the regime.

But she is by no means alone in expressing concern about the involvement of jihadist groups in the uprising. Secular revolutionaries have also raised the alarm. Some groups have stopped their followers from proclaiming “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to their graves”, a popular chant at the start of the uprising.

The nun believes in a “hidden will” to empty the Middle East of its Christians. The Christians, she adds, have nothing against Islam. “We’ve been living with them [Muslims] for centuries,” she said.

She plans to return to Syria soon to support a movement called Musalaha (Reconciliation), which rejects sectarian violence and includes members of all ethnic and religious communities who are tired of the war.

They have their work cut out for them, however.

“What have things come to?” she sighed, contemplating news of the latest horror, a video clip in which an 11-year-old boy is seen slicing off the head of a man in his fifties.

“I fear for our future.”

The Sunday Times