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Assad makes rare visit to church in Damascus frontline

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad speaks during a TV interview in Damascus, Syria in this still image taken from a video on November 29, 2015. REUTERS/Reuters TV courtesy of Czech Television

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al Assad attended Christmas choir preparations in an ancient church close to a frontline area in the capital Damascus where his army is engaged in heavy fighting with rebels, state media said on Saturday.

State television showed footage of Assad and his wife Asma making the visit overnight to the Notre Dame de Damas Church, where he was shown chatting to the choir. He took a seat near the altar and listened to a recital of Christmas poems in the main cathedral hall.

The surroundings of the church in the old part of the ancient capital were hit by mortar fire on Friday, officials said.

The church is only 2 km away from Jobar, a neighborhood of the rebel-held eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus that has been the focus for months of heavy aerial bombardments and more recently Russian bombing that have left dozens of mostly civilian casualties.

Rebels have also frequently targeted government-controlled residential parts of central Damascus.

Assad has portrayed himself in recent interviews with the Western media as a protector of Syria’s minorities, saying his rule was an example of religious tolerance in a country threatened by Islamist insurgents who have taken swathes of territory and seek to impose their version of strict Islam.

The church visit came at around the same time as the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved on Friday a resolution endorsing an international road map for a Syria peace process, a rare show of unity among major powers on a conflict that has claimed more than a quarter million lives.

Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus; Editing by Angus MacSwan