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PRESS PHOTO BY JIM MARSH Pastor Gus Al-Khal PRESS PHOTO BY JIM MARSH Pastor Gus Al-Khal

An up close and personal look at the al Qaeda hijacking of a Syrian revolution

Wednesday, August 13, 2014 by JIM MARSH Special to The Press in Local News

"Whatever you have heard in the media about the efforts to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, it's probably distorted, inaccurate or just plain wrong." That's the assessment of Pastor Gus Al- Khal, of Salisbury Township, who has made two fact-finding and humanitarian trips to his war-torn homeland in 2013, and again earlier this year.

What he saw, heard, and learned was heartbreaking – and a far cry from the media's understanding of the violence which has claimed more than an estimated 150,000 lives and made refugees of an additional two million in the two years of fighting there.

Al-Khal's plea to America is: send humanitarian support; support the choices of the Syrian people as they seek a government less corrupt and try to understand the complexity of a conflict offering only a choice of democratic freedom or death in a struggle to replace Syria's government with an extremist Islamic Republic under Sharia Law.

Al-Khal went on behalf of the congregations of New Bethany Church at 224 N. Sixth St., Allentown, and the Arabic Living E.C. Church, at 527 Seventh Ave., Bethlehem. He serves both churches as pastor.

"We wanted to go and see for ourselves what was really happening," Al-Khal said, "and to provide aid to those who were suffering."

Al-Khal, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, had traveled every other year back to his native land to help "plant" Christian churches. During this year's trip, Al-Khal found fighting, in the string of 25 villages where the churches were thriving, had caused all but one church, in Homs Province to be closed.

The churches, he said were in the "red zone," where active fighting had caused the minority Christians to flee and become refugees, a half-million of which were existing in horrid conditions in tent camps across the nearby border in Lebanon.

The fighters which were wreaking havoc on the villages, Al-Khal said, called themselves the Soldiers of Damascus.

"In reality, they were soldiers of fortune who had come from Turkey, Tunisia, Afghanistan and countries in Europe to be part of the loosely organized remnants of al Qaeda to wage Jihad.

"They were actually Jihadists masquerading as revolutionaries," Al-Khal found.

"Their aim was to establish an Islamic Republic under Sharia law that would take the place of Assad's regime," Al-Khal said.

Assad's soldiers were fighting to protect the Christian minority, as well as keep the government in control. Assad this spring was re-elected president of Syria.

After several months of intense fighting, government forces were able to gain the military advantage of the area and a negotiated withdrawal of the rebels brought the villages back under government control in May.

Al-Khal was in the midst of fighting earlier in the year and constant gunfire could be heard in the videos of the village in which he was hunkered down.

"Every day, between 1 and 3 p.m., the area would become strangely quiet as both sides collected their dead and wounded, and reloaded their weapons for the fighting which would resume at the end of the two hours," Al-Khal said.

During the lull, Al-Khal would make a dangerous journey up a nearby mountain to take food to his mother and father.

On one trip a sniper's bullet passed through the sleeve of his coat and shattered the door handle of the vehicle he was driving. He had to drive at a fast pace to keep from getting caught in the rifle sights of snipers in the hills overlooking the road he had to negotiate.

The few village inhabitants brave enough to stay in the villages which were under siege had to stay indoors out of sight, so they would not come under fire.

Al-Khal said he was broken-hearted to find the remains of Christians who had been crucified and mutilated and hung on crosses to intimidate their brethren.

"If people were unfortunate enough to be captured by the rebels, and you weren't a Muslim Jihadist, you had to be eliminated," Al-Khal said.

"If it had not been for government troops fighting to protect the Christians, it would have been a bloodbath for the inhabitants of the Christian-minority villages," Al-Khal said.

The surreptitious videos taken by Al-Khal of Homs showed the area to be a prosperous neighborhood of middle-class mid-eastern homes in a lush valley of great beauty – tranquil except for the sounds of constant gunfire on the audio track.

Whole neighborhoods, though, were reduced to rubble in the areas where rebels and government troops fought pitched battles.

As Syrian Christian refugees begin to trickle back to see if their homes are still standing, the need for financial resources is great, Al-Khal said. Those wishing to make a tax-deductible contribution can contact either church: New Bethany E.C. Church, 224 North Sixth St., Allentown, 18102, 610-776-4009; or Arabic Living E.C. Church, 527 7th Ave., Bethlehem, 18018, 610-867-2739.