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.”

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in