By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)-- Suspected Islamic gunmen shot dead at least 11 people, mostly Christians, in central Syria on Saturday, August 17, in what local residents and activists said was the latest in a series of attacks on the country's Christian minority.
The state-run SANA news agency reported that the attack occurred after midnight on a road linking the Christian villages of Ein al-Ajouz and Nasrah in Homs province.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that nine of those killed were Christians, amid a religious feast.
It said rebels attacked checkpoints manned by the pro-government National Defense Forces militia, killing five of them, apparently including some Christians. The other six were mostly Christian civilians, including two women, the activists suggested.
The Associated Press (AP) news agency quoted a witness as saying that "many of the dead were refugees from the central city of Homs," which saw heavy clashes between rebels and government troops over the past two years.
On Monday, a bomb explosion reportedly killed an eight-year old Christian girl in Homs province.
Saturday's attack confirmed fears among church groups that Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Syria's 22 million population, are caught in the crossfire between rival Islamic groups.
Eleya Dhaher, archbishop of the Wadi al-Nasarra region that includes the villages where Saturday's attack occurred, told reporters that 15 people were killed in the "massacre." "It seems that tension and the sectarian rift have reached a level where no area can enjoy peace," the AP quoted him as saying.
Wadi al-Nasarra, or Valley of the Christians, has been a relatively safe area compared to other parts of Syria, and many Christians have fled there from violence elsewhere in the country.
Rebels, who are mostly Sunnis, often consider Christians as supporters of President Bashar Assad's government.
PROTECTION AGAINST EXTREMISM?
They point out that the regime is dominated by members of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
While Christians have denied they are supporting Assad's perceived crackdown on human rights, some religious minorities consider his administration the best protection against Islamic extremists among among the country's Sunni majority.
Tens of thousands of Christians have already fled the troubled nation, following attacks against churches, and even the beheading of at least one priest.
Two bishops were abducted in rebel-held areas in April and an Italian Jesuit priest, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing last month while on a trip to the rebel-held northeastern city of Raqqa, Christians said.
Unrest in Syria began in March 2011 and later exploded into a civil war that has killed over 100,000 people.
MORE VIOLENCE REPORTED
There was more bloodshed Saturday, August 17, as a bomb exploded near a Kurdish Red Crescent ambulance in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, killing two paramedics and wounding another, the Observatory reportedly said.
Hassakeh, which borders Turkey has been witnessing almost daily clashes between Kurdish gunmen and members of al-Qaida-linked groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front over the past months that left scores of people dead, AP reported.
The Observatory said Friday's clashes in Hassakeh left four Kurdish gunmen and 11 jihadis dead.
Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria, make up more than 10 percent of the country's population, and have seen their loyalties split in the conflict between pro- and anti-Assad groups, according to observers.
The U.N. refugee agency says it has seen "an unusually large wave of Syrian families" has been pouring into Iraq's Kurdistan area this week.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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