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Fighting rocks historic Syrian Christian village

Heretiq - Wikimedia Commons

Perched on a mountainside north of Damascus, the Christian village of Maaloula has seen a precarious calm since the Syrian revolt began. But tacit agreements between the warring sides crumbled this week as fighting rocked the historic hamlet.


For centuries, this picturesque, predominantly Christian village nestled on the slopes of the Qalamoun Mountains north of Damascus preserved its ancient customs and traditions – including Aramaic, the presumed language of Jesus.

But when fighting broke out in Maaloula this week, it exposed the tacit agreements that have sometimes been struck in the course of the Syrian civil war – as well as the precarious nature of these arrangements.

Shortly after dawn on Wednesday, September 4, several rebel brigades entered Maaloula, which is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria, after overrunning a checkpoint near the village entrance manned by troops and militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a fighter from the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra brigade blew himself up at the checkpoint before fighting broke out between government troops and rebels.

Video footage posted online showed rebels firing heavy machine guns mounted on trucks on a village street. While restrictions on independent media make it difficult to verify reports, news wire services quoted a number of Maaloula residents confirming that fighting had broken out as panicked residents stayed indoors.

Another online video shows a fighter, who identifies himself as a commander of the Baba Amro Revolutionaries Brigade, addressing his men from a flatbed truck. The clip shows the commander warning his fighters not to damage the village’s historic religious structures. “The Christians are our brothers,” says the commander in Arabic. “We have not come to threaten them. We are only here to punish the criminals of Bashar al-Assad.”

By Friday, a tense calm had returned, according to witness reports.

In a phone interview with FRANCE 24 on Friday from Damascus, where he is currently staying after fleeing Wednesday’s fighting in Maaloula, a resident who did not wish to be named said “90 percent” of the villagers had left on Thursday. He also maintained that regime troops had retaken control of the checkpoint near the village entrance and that most of the rebels who entered Maaloula earlier this week had withdrawn.

Tacit agreements ‘based on honour’

Clinging to a dramatic cleft in the mountains, Maaloula has been protected from the influence of waves of conquerors over the centuries by its remote location.

But in recent years, better roads linking the village to Damascus as well as the migration of locals seeking jobs in the cities have been threatening one of Maaloula’s most distinctive features – the Aramaic language – as younger generations have lost fluency in their ancient tongue.

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011, an implicit respect for the Christian village's heritage has saved it from some of the worst ravages of the civil war. The village is on the UNESCO list of tentative world heritage sites and is home to the historic hilltop monasteries of Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.

“The topology of the place is special,” said Frédéric Pichon, a Syria expert and author of a book on the Christians of the Middle East, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“The village is located on a cliff. The regular army had established a checkpoint below, at the entrance to the village. It’s been more than a year since rebels from the city of Yabroud  – under opposition control – were positioned at the al-Safir hotel at the top of the cliff. By a tacit agreement with the regime’s military, there was no exchange of fire since they took this position. It is a kind of agreement based on honour. But [on Wednesday] the village was somehow caught in the crossfire.”

In a phone interview with Reuters this week, Samia Elias, a Maaloula resident, said that, “For months the rebels have been around Maaloula but there has been a sort of an understanding with the townspeople that they would not enter. To be fair, they do not seem to have touched churches or homes.”

Pichon notes that, “Contrary to popular belief, the village is not 100% Christian. Around 20 to 30% of the inhabitants are Sunni [Muslim]. Residents also told me at the beginning of the revolt, one of the Sunni elders of the village had reassured Christian leaders and told them they had nothing to fear from the local Sunni community.”

But the tacit agreements and reassurances appear to have crumbled earlier this week, Pichon acknowledged. “It’s true, it’s surprising. I believe there’s a double message here. The first is to show that Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which claims to be the protector of minorities, is no longer able to protect them. The second would be to intimidate Syria’s Christians, who rebels accuse of generally supporting the regime.”

Syria’s Christians on the sidelines

The recent fighting in Maaloula has highlighted the precarious state of Syria’s Christians who constitute more than 5% of Syria’s prewar total population of 23 million.

Syria’s Christians have largely stayed on the sidelines since the conflict broke out more than two years ago. While some clerical leaders of the diverse Christian community have expressed support for Assad, few Christians have taken up arms on either side in a civil war that has pitched the Sunni majority against the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Last month, at least 11 Christians were killed when rebels stormed a Western Syrian village in Wadi al-Nassara (“Valley of the Christians” in Arabic) on the feast of the Assumption – a major Christian feast in Syria – sparking fears that Christians could become targets of rebel attacks.

“I think they are not immune from further attacks,” said Pichon. “But we must not lose sight of the fact that this is primarily a conflict internal to Islam, between Sunnis and Alawites. So far, the Christians have not suffered significant attacks.”



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