For 40 years, Um Michael has found comfort and serenity amid the soaring pillars and ancient icons of St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

But as a priest offered up a prayer for peace one recent Sunday, the 70-year-old widow dabbed tears from her eyes.

“I was wishing that life would go back to the way it used to be,” she said.

At night, Um Michael can hear the echoes of fighting drawing closer to her home in Bab Touma, the centuries-old Christian quarter of Damascus. Like many Christians here, she wonders whether Syria’s increasingly bloody, nearly yearlong uprising could shatter the veneer of security provided by President Bashar Assad’s autocratic but secular government.

Assad has portrayed himself as the defender of the nation’s religious minorities, including Christians and his Alawite Muslim sect, against foreign-backed Islamic extremists. Opposition activists scoff at that notion, saying he has deliberately exploited sectarian fear to stay in power.

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