Assad Promises to Protect Syrian Christians

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Syria's embattled president is promising to defend the tiny Christian minority from Islamist rebels.

On Easter Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad toured the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, which has changed hands several times over the past year.

Assad, a dictator like his father, Hafez, has been accused of using chemical weapons against his own people.

Still, many in Syria's Christian community either support him or remain neutral, preferring his rule to hardline Islamist groups in the opposition, including some with ties to al Qaeda.

Assad made the pledge ahead of the first presidential elections since the start of the civil war more than three years ago, set for June 3.

On Monday, the country's parliament speaker encouraged Syrians to vote in the upcoming election, though many say it will do little to change the situation.

Assad has already suggested he may seek another seven-year term.

Meanwhile, anti-Assad activists are promising to boycott the vote, calling it a farce.

Syria's civil war began in March 2011 during the so-called Arab Spring. It started with predominantly peaceful protests calling for democratic reform and an end to the decades-long dictatorship. Assad's father, Hafez, ruled from 1971 until his death in 2000.

Since then, more than 150,000 Syrians have been killed, some 2.5 million fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries, and another 6.5 million have been displaced within Syria.

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