Fears Syrian war could turn into a conflict of faith

The hilltop monastery has become a stronghold. Photo: ITV News

Warning: This article contains images of dead and burnt bodies.

The burnt bodies of twenty rebel fighters are the only clues as to the ferocity of the battle for Dier Sherobeam, a hilltop Christian monastery a few miles north of Damascus.

We’ve been brought here by the Syrian government, which claims the men were killed in battle and burnt by their fellow Islamists to avoid identification.

It’s impossible to know who burnt them and why. Their charred remains lie a few hundred metres from the summit they died trying to defend.

The high ground is of course of tactical value – but also of huge symbolic importance. This holy place is now a fortress occupied by President Assad’s troops and weapons, including several tanks and field guns.

The burned bodies of rebel soldiers. Credit: ITV News

Some of the pro-government soldiers involved with retaking the hill are from the local Christian community, many of whom characterise the rebels as "Jihadists" or "terrorists" who want to drive them out of Syria.

ITV Correspondent Dan Rivers with Aghiad Sheikh. Credit: ITV News

They speak Aramaic the language of Christ and their church was built in 547 AD.

Aghiad Sheikh is one of the men in the town who has taken up arms to protect his community from what he claims are foreign jihadists nearby. I ask if the rebels will ever come back here.

“No until we are all dead, it’s the only way they will get here. It’s our land, our church - we’ve been here 2,000 years and we are not leaving now”, he says.

Syria’s social affairs minister says they not targeting the centre of Rankous. Credit: ITV News

Some of their guns are trained on the rebel stronghold of Rankous in the valley below – a Muslim town now eerily quiet.

The silence punctuated by the odd shell - but Syria’s social affairs minister Kinda al-Shammat insists they not targeting the centre of Rankous, because of the civilians who remain, saying it would be against international law.

The heavily guarded Byzantine church of Our Lady of Sedanya. Credit: ITV News

This from a regime which this week was accused of systematic torture at least 11,000 prison detainees, a regime which is accused of using chemical weapons on its own people and which some say are deliberately following a policy of starving out besieged citizens in rebel held areas.

Near the monastery is the heavily guarded Byzantine church of Our Lady of Sedanya, an exquisite building, which has been damaged by mortar fire.

Inside the Byzantine church of Our Lady of Sedanya. Credit: ITV News

For hundreds of years this ancient Christian community has lived in total harmony with Muslim in this town, now people in this church say they worried the foreign Jihadi fighters are twisting this conflict between Christianity and Islam.

Religious leaders remain on good terms. Credit: ITV News

So far Sedanya’s religious leaders remain on good terms – but with the violence raging around them – can that dialogue continue?

Watch Dan's report on ITV News at Ten