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Syrian Leader Makes Rare Visit to Damascus Church Near Front Line

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center left, and his wife, Asma al-Assad, center right, pose for a picture with a Syrian man at a Christmas choral presentation at the Lady of Damascus Catholic Church, in Damascus, Dec. 18, 2015.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad attended Christmas choir preparations in an ancient church close to a front-line 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 kilometers 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.