Syria: Fate of Historic Christian Town Still Unknown

Maaloula is considered a heritage site by UNESCO, where a number of ancient Christian churches and monasteries are located. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Abdel Rahim Assi

Published Monday, September 9, 2013

Reports coming out of the ancient Christian town of Maaloula remain unclear as to whether the Syrian army has in fact regained control after radical Islamists entered it last week.

Until Sunday, September 8, news reports of Maaloula conflicted each other. Some reports suggested that the hardline al-Nusra Front managed to filter back into the town after the Syrian military claimed it had expelled the militants and re-established security. Yet the town’s representative in the Syrian parliament, Maria Saadeh, explained that the army had in fact regained control of Maaloula after having been forced to retreat briefly for “tactical reasons.”

The number of casualties cited has ranged between four and 20 dead, in addition to four to 15 kidnapped locals.

Saadeh added that most of the residents are still in their homes, reluctant to leave due to the presence of snipers dug into the cliffs that surround the town, although some women and elderly people did manage to leave when the army first entered the area.

Maaloula is considered a heritage site by UNESCO, where a number of ancient Christian churches and monasteries are located. The town lies over 40 km from Damascus near the Lebanese border. Saadeh noted that some reports of the fighters’ targets were exaggerated, while confirming that at least two historic churches were heavily damaged.

The MP insisted that the attack on the town was not essential from a military point of view, saying that the fighters could have easily bypassed it in order to carry out attacks on army checkpoints in the area. But, she says, they wanted to enter Maaloula to vandalize and destroy it, adding that many residents confirmed to her that the fighters they saw were of foreign nationalities, including Chechens and Libyans.

She said that targeting the historic town was part of a larger plan to drive Christians out of Syria, pointing to many examples such as the attacks on a number of Christian areas in Damascus, Homs, and the Jazira area in the north.

By assaulting such a symbol of Christianity in the area as Maaloula, she maintained, the fighters are sending a message to the community that they must leave Syria, after having driven them out of Iraq over the last decade. Saadeh completely rejected European offers of refuge to Syria’s Christians, insisting that they have no intention of abandoning the deep roots and heritage that connect them to the Levant.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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