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Christians in Syria caught in crossfire

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2013, 6:33 p.m.

AJALTOUN, Lebanon ­ —When radical Islamists tore down a cross and hoisted a black flag above a church in the northern Syrian city of Raqqah last week, it underscored the increasingly hostile environment for the country's Christians.

Although Syria is majority Sunni Muslim, it is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse countries in the Middle East, home to minorities including Christians, Druze and Shiite-offshoot Alawites and Ismailis. But the country's conflict, now in its third year, is threatening that tapestry.

While the primary front in the war has pitted Sunni against Shiite, Christians are increasingly caught in the firing line. The perception that they support the government — which is in many cases true ­— has long made them a target for rebel groups. Now, Christians say radical Islamist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, an affiliate of al-Qaida, are determined to drive them from their homes.

“The Christian community in Syria is stuck between two fires,” said Nadim Nassar, a Syrian from Latakia who is director of the Awareness Foundation, a Britain-based interfaith charity. “One fire is a corrupt regime, and everybody agrees there needs to be a change. And on the other hand, there's a fragmented and diverse opposition on the ground who can't control jihadist forces coming from outside the country.”

Syria is not the only place in the wider region where Christians are being targeted. Coptic churches in Egypt have been attacked, while Pakistan last week experienced the deadliest church bombing in the country's history. The militants who attacked a mall in Nairobi last month singled out non-Muslims.

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