Civilians flee rebels re-taking Christian town of Maaloula in Syria civil war
Posted: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 09:53 PM UT
Rebels led by al-Qa’ida-linked fighters gained control of a Christian town north-east of the capital, Damascus, Syrian activists said on Sunday, while government media continued to claim that regime forces were winning.
Maaloula, strategically located in the mountains overlooking Damascus, is a Unesco World Heritage Site, hailed as a beacon of Christianity and one of the last places in the world where the ancient language of Aramaic is spoken. The Muslim population has grown in recent decades, and the two religions frequently wage a war of words over loudspeakers, Friday prayers from the town’s two new mosques competing for attention with hymns of nuns that reverberate through the valley.
Now, the town has fallen into a far more violent back-and-forth as government forces have battled to regain control from the al-Qa’ida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra rebels, who first overran government roadblocks and entered the town last Wednesday.
Most of the civilian population fled as pro-government news outlets vowed that the military would “liberate” the town.
Government forces entered the town on Saturday morning, leading to fierce clashes throughout the day, “but they left when rebels started pouring into the village”, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, a spokesman for the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
He said that Jabhat al-Nusra was backed by another group, the Qalamon Liberation Front, which moved into the town after heavy clashes with the army late on Saturday. He said around 1,500 rebels are inside the town.
“The army pulled back to the outskirts of the village and both [rebel groups] are in total control of Maaloula now,” Mr Abdul-Rahman said.
Mother Pelagia Sayah, the head of Saint Tekla monastery in Maaloula, denied earlier reports that churches and monasteries had been attacked. But the recent kidnappings of prominent Orthodox bishops, plus the Christian peace activist Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, have raised disturbing parallels to the height of sectarian violence in Iraq, and fears that Syria’s Christian minority may not survive the war.
The siege of Maaloula comes as tens of thousands of Christians around the world gathered to pray for peace in Syria. The Pope led a five-hour prayer session in St Peter’s Square in Rome. In Damascus, too, hundreds followed his lead, while the Syrian clergy implored Christians to remain in the country. “I beg you to remain here,” the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III Laham was reported as saying. “We’re staying. If you leave, we leave. So we beg you, stop coming to our priests asking for a visa. If you leave, who will remain? Only our brethren the Muslims.”
Dramatic report: Inside the battle for Syria's ancient Christian village (VIDEO)
Anti-Assad rebels have been forced out of many parts of Syria’s ancient Christian village of Maaloula, but the fighting there remains heavy, RT correspondent Maria Finoshina reports from the scene.
After arriving in the center of the village Wednesday, Maria Finoshina and the RT camera crew saw signs of a recent battle and heard shelling. Syrian Army soldiers said the village was freed from jihadists. The claim would later in the day turn out to be premature.
Al-Nusra Front fighters first attacked the village last Wednesday. The following seven days saw Maaloula torn between the rebels and government forces, with both occasionally gaining control over the village.
Some residents, who claim rebels have resorted to looting, executions and forcing residents to convert to Islam, chose to join the Army to defend their village. Among them, Saba Ubeid, a store owner, said when filmed by RT in 2012 that he was sure the rebels would never come to the village. This time he was armed with a gun and fought alongside Syrian soldiers.
“They sent terrorists here from all corners of the world to kill Syrian people and each other. Why? I ask the world, why?” he cried out. “While in Europe if a citizen is simply slapped in his face, there'll be a scandal. While Syrians – how many victims, how many hundreds of thousands have been slaughtered? When it will stop?”
Maaloula, a mountain village of 2,000 people, is the center of Christianity in the region. Alongside with Catholic and Orthodox monasteries there are the remains of numerous convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries. It is also one of the very few places in the world where people still speak Western Aramaic, a Biblical language that Jesus is believed to have spoken.
The village, built into a rugged mountainside, is a major pilgrimage destination for Christians and Muslims from around the world. It is an ancient sanctuary on a UNESCO list of proposed World Heritage sites.
Despite sporadic reports of government troops regaining control over the village, at the time RT’s Maria Finoshina was in Maaloula the rebels still occupied the mountaintop Safir hotel, a strategic vantage point for sniper attacks.
“Our goal was to free it and go to the Mar Takhla monastery, but we still haven’t have been able to,” one of the soldiers says.
The Mar Takhla monastery – one of the oldest in Syria – holds the remains of St. Takhla, who is said to have converted many people to Christianity in Syria.
On their way out of Maaloula, the RT were caught up in the crossfire between the rebels and the government troops. The engineer was slightly injured.
The RT crew left the village when it was already dark. Government forces were still continuing their offensive on Maaloula.
The village, 60 kilometers northeast of Damascus, located on a highway between the capital and Homs, is a strategically important location. If the village falls to the rebels, the pressure would be significantly increased on government defenses in Damascus.