Jihadis forced conversions in Maaloula, as UN reports on Syria war crimes

A woman cries during a march as part of the funeral of the three Christian Syrians who were killed during the week-end in the ancient town of Maaloula, in the capital Damascus on 10 September 2013. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

Published Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Jihadis who overran Syria's ancient town of Maaloula last week disparaged Christians as "Crusaders" and forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint, say residents who fled the town.

Testimony from Maaloula comes as UN human rights investigators said on Wednesday that both Syrian government forces and rebels had committed war crimes during a two-month period analyzed by a report.

Many of Maaloula's people left after a first rebel assault knocked out an army checkpoint at the entrance to the strategic town on September 4. Some went to a nearby village and others to Damascus, about 55 kilometers to the south.

One of them, Marie, was still frightened as she spoke of that day.

"They arrived in our town at dawn... and shouted 'We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," Islamists’ term for Christians, Marie said in Damascus, where she and hundreds of others attended the burial Tuesday of three Christian pro-government militiamen killed in the fighting.

Maaloula is one of the most renowned Christians towns in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic.

Home to around 5,000 people it is strategically important for rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip around the capital.

It could also be used as a launching point for attacks on the highway between the capital and Homs, a key government supply route.

The rebels have been in and out of the town since the first assault as they battle with government troops and militia.

On Sunday, residents said rebels, including jihadis linked to al-Qaeda, had overrun Maaloula.

But on Tuesday night, the Free Syrian Army said rebels would withdraw to spare the town's people and heritage, on the condition that the government kept its forces out as well.

"The army and its shabiha (militias) must not enter into the town," a spokesman for the rebels said via an online video statement.

"To ensure no blood is spilt and that the properties of the people of Maaloula are kept safe, the Free Syrian Army announces that the town of Maaloula will be kept out of the struggle between the FSA and the regime army," the spokesman said.

However, they were still in the town on Wednesday, a Syrian security source said.

"The army has not yet retaken Maaloula. The battles are raging on, but (the army) is making progress," the source said on condition of anonymity.

"The rebels still hold some pockets of resistance inside Maaloula and its surroundings," the source added.

Some rebel groups have accused the army of having deliberately pulled out of the town in the fighting, leaving it open to jihadi capture, as a propaganda ploy to gain sympathy for the Christians there.

A nun from the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox convent in Maaloula told AFP by telephone that "there were fierce battles (on Tuesday) but the town was not shelled. We and the orphans we take care of are doing well, but we lack fuel."

Recalling the events of last week, 62-year-old Adnan Nasrallah said an explosion destroyed an archway just across from his house that leads into the town.

"I saw people wearing al-Nusra headbands who started shooting at crosses," said Nasrallah.

One of them "put a pistol to the head of my neighbor and forced him to convert to Islam by obliging him to repeat 'there is no God but God.’"

"Afterwards they joked, 'he's one of ours now.'"

Nasrallah spent 42 years running a restaurant – which he named Maaloula – in the US state of Washington and returned to Syria just before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke out in March 2011.

"I had a great dream. I came back to my country to promote tourism. I built a guesthouse and spent $2,000 installing a windmill to provide electricity in the town.

"My dream has gone up in smoke. Forty-two years of work for nothing," he lamented.

But worse, for him, was what he said was the reaction of his Muslim neighbors when the town was seized by the rebels.

"Women came out on their balconies shouting with joy, and children... did the same. I discovered that our friendship was superficial."

But Nasrallah's sister, Antoinette, refused to condemn everyone.

"There are refugees from Harasta and Douma (in the suburbs of Damascus) that we have taken in, and they are spreading the poison of hatred, especially among the younger generation," she said.

Another resident, Rasha, recounted how the jihadis had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town's militia, and brutally murdered him.

"I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered," she said.

"Good morning, Rashrush," a voice answered, using her nickname. "We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-government militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat."

The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.

"Jesus didn't come to save him," he taunted.

A UN report concluded that pro-government forces had massacred civilians and bombed hospitals in widespread attacks to recapture territory from rebels this year.

Opposition forces, including Islamist foreign fighters, have also perpetrated war crimes including executions, hostage-taking and shelling of civilian neighborhoods, the investigators said in their latest report, covering the period of May 15-July 15.

"The perpetrators of these violations and crimes, on all sides, act in defiance of international law. They do not fear accountability. Referral to justice is imperative," said the report by the UN commission of inquiry, which is led by Paulo Pinheiro of Brazil.

The independent experts said they had received allegations about the use of chemical weapons, adding that "on the evidence currently available, it was not possible to reach a finding about the chemical agents used, their delivery systems or the perpetrators.”

“Investigations are ongoing," the report said.

he team of some 20 investigators carried out 258 interviews with refugees, defectors and others in the region and in Geneva, including via Skype, for their 11th report in two years. They have never been allowed into Syria despite repeated requests.

The report called for a political solution to Syria's civil war and urged other states to "stop weapons transfers in view of the clear risk that they will be used to commit serious violations of international law".

(AFP, Reuters Al-Akhbar )

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