Civilians flee rebels re-taking Christian town of Maaloula in Syria civil war

 

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
i100 In this video, the late actor Leonard Nimoy explains how he decided to use the gesture for his character
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
news
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower