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Originally published December 23, 2012 at 6:09 PM | Page modified December 24, 2012 at 4:15 PM

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Syrian Christians fear bleak future after Assad

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria's population of more than 22 million, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence that has been sweeping the country since March 2011.

The Associated Press

Dozens killed in a bread line

BEIRUT — A Syrian warplane was reported to have conducted airstrikes Sunday that killed dozens of people lined up for bread at a bakery in the central town of Hilfaya, according to anti-government activists in the area.

The attack, and its toll, could not immediately be confirmed.

The reason for the attack was unclear, but activists said that rebel fighters occupied Hilfaya last week as part of a broader offensive to seize territory around Hama, where the government has kept tight control after suppressing protests in the city last year.

The bakery was one of three in the city. When word spread Sunday that a flour shipment from Turkey had come in, people began lining up around noon, waiting for their turn at its windows for bread after a stretch of days when the bakeries had been idle.

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BEIRUT — With Christmas just days away, 40-year-old Mira begged her parents to flee their hometown of Aleppo, which has become a major battleground in Syria's civil war.

Her parents refused to join her in Lebanon, but they are taking one simple precaution inside their besieged city. For the first time, Mira says, her parents will not put up a Christmas tree for fear their religion might make them a target.

"They are in a Christian area but they don't feel secure to put a tree, even inside their apartment," said Mira, who spoke in Lebanon on condition that only her first name be published, out of concern for her family.

Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria's population of more than 22 million, say they are particularly vulnerable to the violence sweeping the country since March 2011. They are fearful that Syria will become another Iraq, with Christians caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians fled Iraq after they and others were targeted by militants in the chaotic years after dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003.

During the Syria conflict, Christians have largely stuck by President Bashar Assad, in large part because they fear the rising power of Muslim hard-liners and groups with al-Qaida-style ideologies within the uprising against his rule.

The regime and ruling elite are dominated by the Alawite sect, itself a minority offshoot of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs, but it has brought Christians and other minorities — as well as Sunni Muslims — into senior positions.

Many Christians worry they will be marginalized or even targeted if the country's Sunni Muslim majority, which forms the majority of the opposition, takes over.

The rebel leadership has sought to portray itself as inclusive, promising no reprisals if Assad falls. But some actions by fighters on the ground have been less reassuring.

This week, the commander of one rebel brigade threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in central Syria — Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh — saying regime forces were using the towns to attack nearby areas.

The commander, Rashid Abul-Fidaa, of the Ansar Brigade in Hama province, demanded the towns' residents "evict Assad's gangs" or be attacked.

Some Christian activists have also figured prominently among the opposition to Assad, advocating an end to autocratic rule in the country. Christians were among the numerous political opponents the regime jailed alongside Muslims over the years.

Aya, a Christian artist who has been campaigning against the regime for years, predicted prison won't be enough in the eyes of the rebels to balance the perception of Christian support for Assad. She fears score-settling if the regime falls.

"Many Christians think that this regime is good for us," said Aya, a 51-year-old from Aleppo who fled to Beirut in October. "They think that if they keep quiet, Assad will stay, and protect us. But this is an illusion."

When the government deployed fighter jets to Aleppo to drive back rebel advances in the northern city, they did not spare Christians in the city, Aya said.

"We all got hit, but it's too late now for Christians to change their minds about this regime," Aya said. "I am afraid that now we will pay the price for being silent about this terrible regime all these years."

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