Christian village becomes a battleground in Syrian war
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Rebels linked to al Qaeda seized control of the predominantly Christian Syrian village of Maaloula on Sunday, according to an opposition group, as residents fear their historic village has turned into a symbolic, if not strategic, battleground.
“God have mercy on Syria,” sang the congregation at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Dormition in Damascus this weekend. But miles away, in a historic village nestled on the slopes of the Qalamoun Mountains north of the Syrian capital, there was little sign of any mercy.
Latest reports from Syrian opposition groups on Sunday said rebels – including militants from the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra group – have gained control of Maaloula, a predominantly Christian village famed for preserving its ancient customs – including Aramaic, the presumed language of Jesus.
Declining security and restrictions on the independent media make it difficult to verify reports from the isolated village. But Sunday’s accounts came days after Maaloula residents confirmed that a number of rebel brigades had entered the village on Wednesday.
By Friday, Maaloula residents told FRANCE 24 the rebels had withdrawn from the village, which clings precariously to a dramatic mountain ridge northeast of Damascus.
But by Sunday, fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, backed by another group, the Qalamoun Liberation Front, moved into Maaloula after heavy clashes with the army, according to Rami Abdulrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Regime forces entered Maaloula, where snipers were already positioned. They made propaganda videos, which were then broadcast by pro-regime media,” explained Abdulrahman in an interview with FRANCE 24. “In response to this provocation, rebel fighters stormed Maaloula. Army troops then left the town and positioned themselves around it.”
Reporting from Damascus, FRANCE 24’s Lucy Fielder said that while it was difficult to confirm reports that rebels had taken full control of the village, “a [Syrian] government source told us there was indeed fierce fighting this morning and that the rebels were led by Jabhat al-Nusra.”
The isolated village of Maaloula is not a particularly strategic site, according to analysts, but it has a symbolic value.
“The army is seen by the Christians as their protector against the extremist parts of the Islamic opposition,” explained Fielder. “So, the army’s not likely to just leave it in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra. I think we can expect to see much more fighting and perhaps for this to become more of a battleground in the coming days.”
Old agreements crumble as world eyes an intervention
Maaloula's ancient heritage - it is home to some of Syria’s oldest surviving monasteries - had saved it from some of the worst ravages of the civil war over the past two years.
“The regular army had established a checkpoint below, at the entrance to the village,” explained Frédéric Pichon, a Syria expert and author of a book on the Christians of the Middle East, in an interview with FRANCE 24 last week.
“Rebels from the [neighbouring] 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,” said Pichon.
But this week, the fragile agreements appeared to unravel, forcing Maaloula residents to flee to Damascus.
At the Cathedral of Our Lady of Dormition in the Syrian capital this weekend, the congregation included Maaloula residents desperate for news of their loved ones left behind.
“My son is there and we can't reach him. I don't know what's happened to him. He's called Georges Nasrallah. If anyone knows anything about him, please let me know,” said Nizar Nasralla, speaking to FRANCE 24 outside the church.
Holding a placard proclaiming “God Bless Maloula [sic],” Antoinette Nasralla, another Maaloula resident, said the situation had turned grim. “We are worried because we saw what happened in other areas, in other villages, how they kill people, so we have to run away.”
Standing next to Nasrallah outside the cathedral, a young man holds a handwritten sign saying, “Hands OFF Maaloula”.
Pope and some Syrian Christians oppose military strikes
Syria’s Christian community – which comprises more than five percent of Syria’s pre-war total population of 23 million – have largely stayed on the sidelines in the Syrian civil war, which has pitched the Sunni majority against Assad’s Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
But some Syrian Christian religious leaders have declared support for Assad, voicing concerns over the rise of hardline Islamists in Sunni rebel ranks.
As the international community awaits a US decision whether to launch punitive strikes against Assad’s regime, some members of the Syrian Christian community have voiced their opposition to an international military intervention.
“When the Americans occupied Iraq, all the Christians were driven out,” said Father Gabriel Daoud, a Syrian Orthodox cleric. “It's clear that there's a plan to force the eastern Christians to flee the region. But we'll defend the right to maintain our presence and our existence here.”
At a service at St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Pope Francis opposed a military intervention in Syria, denouncing the “trade wars to sell weapons" and a "proliferation" of arms that has taken precedence over what he called “a just solution to a fratricidal conflict”.