One thing you will never see: A story where Muslims are threatened with death if they don’t convert to Christianity.

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Sami Amir is used to the deep echoing rumble of the Syrian army artillery pounding rebel positions on the outskirts of Damascus. It’s the thump of mortars launched from an Islamist-controlled neighborhood that scares him to death.

The mortars have repeatedly hit in his mainly Christian district of Damascus, al-Qassaa, reportedly killing at least 32 people and injuring dozens of others the past two weeks.

“You don’t know when and you don’t know where they hit,” says Amir, a 55-year-old Christian merchant. “Life here is often too difficult.”

Rebel shelling into the capital has increasingly hit several majority-Christian districts, particularly al-Qassaa, with its wide avenues, middle class apartment blocks, leafy parks, popular restaurants and shopping streets busy with pedestrians.

The shelling and recent rebel assaults on predominantly Christian towns have fueled fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the growing role of Islamic extremists and foreign fighters among the rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad’s rule. Christians believe they are being targeted — in part because of the anti-Christian sentiment among extremists and in part as punishment for what is seen as their support for Assad. […]

Thousands who fled Maaloula have found refuge in the al-Qassaa and other Christian districts of Damascus. Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the civil war, home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Some of the residents still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.

Youssef Naame and his wife Norma, an elderly Christian couple from Maaloula, described how bearded extremist Islamists stormed the northeastern village early last month chanting “God is Great!”

“The jihadis shouted: Convert to Islam, or you will be crucified like Jesus,” Youssef said with a shaky voice in his daughter’s al-Qassaa apartment.

He said they were trapped with other Christians for three days in a small house next to the town church, without food or electricity.

“There were snipers shooting everywhere, we were not able to move,” he recalled. “We were so scared. I lost my speech.”

Syrian Church leaders fear that Assad’s fall would lead to an Islamist state that would spell the end to the centuries-old existence of Christians on Syrian soil.

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