Persecution of the Christians: Syrian minority fear the end of fighting more than war itself

In his final dispatch from Syria, Patrick Cockburn reports from Maloula on the plight of the country's Christian minority, who fear an end to the fighting more than the war itself

Two masked men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles tried to kidnap a businessman called George Alumeh in the ancient Christian town of Maloula, north-west of Damascus, last week. It was not the first kidnap attempt on richer members of the Christian community here and Mr Alumeh was prepared. He fought back, first drawing a pistol, hurling his car keys away so his car could not be stolen, and then trying to escape. He got away, but was hit by a burst of gunfire from the kidnappers which has sent him to hospital with stomach, leg and hand wounds.

Father Mata Hadad, the priest of the Convent of St Tikla built into the mountain wall that towers over Maloula, tells the story to illustrate how life has become more dangerous for Christians, particularly for those thought to have money. The 10 per cent of the Syrian population who are Christians are debating with trepidation the likely outcome of the Syrian crisis and its effect on them.

The omens are not good. Every country in the Middle East seems to be becoming more Islamic and more sectarian. Syrian Christians have seen since 2003 how an outcome of the invasion of Iraq was the destruction of Christian communities in Iraq that had survived for almost 2,000 years. If the opposition National Coalition, recognised by 130 countries as the legitimate government of Syria, does ultimately take power then its most effective fighting force will be Jadhat al-Nusra, with an ideology similar to al-Qa'ida. It is prospects like this that fill Syrian Christians with alarm.

Maloula is a good place to talk about these fears. It is an hour's drive from Damascus, some 20 miles from Lebanon, and occupies a spectacular site in a cleft in the mountains. Its rocky defiles have always been a place of refuge. It was here that St Tikla, fleeing imperial soldiery, took refuge in a cave high up in the cliffs.

Maloula's isolation helped preserve its Christianity and also gave it the distinction of being the only place where Western Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken by Christians.

There is a mood of uncertainty about the future. So far there have been four kidnappings that the Syrian army post just beyond the entrance to the town has not been able to do much to prevent. Religious tourism has disappeared. "I used to sell guide books and souvenirs," says Samir Shakti, gesturing towards his small shop, "but now I sell fruit and vegetables".

Another sign of edginess is the bursts of anger against foreigners, in the present case myself, as a symbol of European powers accused of arming Islamic fundamentalists. Even the Mother Superior of the Convent, Pelagia Sayaf, demanded to know why the Europeans were aiding "people who kill with the knife". She said many people were leaving the town (though this was denied by some others in Maloula).

Mother Superior Pelagia looked strained. She has been at her post for 23 years, ruling over 14 nuns and 33 orphans from Christian families all over the Middle East. The orphans wear a red uniform and tartan caps, giving them a surprisingly Scottish appearance. "It is going to be a sad Christmas in Maloula," the Mother Superior said. "Sanctions are punishing the people, not the government."

Christians may feel more frightened than other Syrians, but everybody feels vulnerable. There was no fighting on the road from Damascus to Maloula, but there are many wrecked buildings from battles in the past couple of months. Once the main road to Homs was crowded with car showrooms, but these are now closed and their plate glass windows are protected from blast damage by hurriedly built walls of concrete blocks.

Better-off Christians are able to escape abroad, but for those with little money this is a difficult option. One Armenian, who did not want his name published, said "we can go to Lebanon, but it is expensive to stay there, jobs are difficult to get and Lebanese don't like Syrians much because our army was there for so long". He himself was seeking Armenian citizenship.

As with others in Damascus the degree of danger felt depends on precise location. Many Christians live in Jaramana district that is now dangerous from snipers and bombers. The Christian parts of the Old City are safer, but there are electricity cuts and a shortage of diesel. So far the sufferings of the Christians of Syria are no worse than those of the Muslims, but they feel that whatever the outcome of the civil war, their future will most likely be worse than their past.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
Sport
SPORT
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
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

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick