Monday, December 22, 2014

Christians unite in Syria fight to save their land

Johan Cosar inspects a rocket propelled grenade launcher
Johan Cosar inspects a rocket propelled grenade launcher at a Syriac Military Council base.(Photo: Martin Bader for USA TODAY)
Sophie Cousins, USA TODAY
Unlit Christmas lights adorn this small but largely isolated Christian town in northeastern Syria. But with only a few hours of electricity every day and most Christians gone the dark lights are a grim reminder of what used to be.

Tens of thousands of Christians have fled the Kurdish-dominated Hasaka province over the past three years because of an ongoing civil war, economic pressures and the rise of the Islamic State, which captured large swaths of Iraq and Syria earlier this year.

The Christians had numbered about 2.2 million — 10% of Syria's population — and lived mainly in the northeast. Many of them also left because of the widespread perception they support the embattled Syrian government. Those remaining vehemently reject the claim.

Residents here estimate up to two-thirds have departed, leaving streets largely abandoned and dozens of shop fronts boarded up. The only sign of life surfaces in the late afternoon, when men gather to play cards and discuss politics at one of the two coffee houses still open.

Dajad Hagopian, 68, a Christian priest, is among those who have refused to leave. He wears his clerical clothing every day even though he only gives a sermon once a week to a handful of people at the Armenian Orthodox Church here.

"God said give us our daily bread, and we get it," he said. "We may not get as much, but we have fruit, meat and bread, and that's all we need.

While Derike has been largely spared from the civil war's violence, it's not far away. And with few employment opportunities, rising food prices and a lack of electricity and water, remaining residents aren't optimistic about the future.

"We used to have big Christmas celebrations here and now look at the streets. What is there to celebrate?" lamented a man with a thick, gray mustache who only gave his first name, George, to protect his safety. Still, he's staying put. "I can't and won't leave my home," he said.

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