Maaloula—Fifty-six kilometers from Damascus, high in the mountains, is the oldest Christian community in the world, where many residents still speak Aramaic. In the past years, Christian pilgrims from around the world came to explored its ancient sites and listened to the Christian liturgy preached in Aramaic in its churches. The village also played an important role in early Christianity. According to legend, Taqla, an early Christian saint and pupil of St. Paul, was pursued by Roman soldiers when she came upon a mountain, and after praying, was able to escape. Today, the village, now essentially abandoned, is home to numerous Christian churches and monasteries, including one named after Taqla. Months ago, the monks fled from their nearby monastery, and the last two priests who oversaw the affairs of Maaloula’s ancient Mar Takla convent also left, leaving the 24 nuns of Maaloula to fend for themselves.
The assault on Maaloula began two weeks ago Sunday, when Syrian rebels, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through Maaloula for the second time in four days, and the last of its few thousand residents fled. Al-Qaeda-linked fighters overran the convent, terrifying the nuns. Christian residents said the rebels attacked Christian homes and churches, threatening them with beheadings if they didn’t convert to Islam, the Associated Press reported.
Then on Wednesday, rebels of the Free Syrian Army were assisted by a Jordanian suicide bomber from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Sunni terrorist organization affiliated with Al-Qaeda, who blew himself up at the Syrian checkpoint at the entrance to the town, killing seven government loyalists. Other rebel units, most of them less extremist, swarmed in, firing guns in the air, roaming around in pickup trucks to “cleanse” Maaloula of supporters of the regime. They also vowed not to attack Christians, One of the rebel commanders proclaimed, “We must not harm any church . . . we target only those who shoot at us. These people are our families . . . these icons of the church and those people here and there, they should stay in peace.”
The rebels were fighting the “popular defense committees,” armed militias trained by the Syrian government to supplement the Syrian army and protect their own neighborhoods or villages from attacks by rebels. Many of these militias are comprised of Syrian minority groups such as the Christians, Druze, and Alawites. Then on Friday, the Free Syrian Army took off. Rebel spokesmen told the media they had attacked the town to secure control of a major road between Homs and Damascus.
According to AFP, Syrian rebel fighters announced Sept. 10 that they withdrew from the village. Despite the withdrawal, many of the town’s roughly 3,000 residents are gone. “If Maaloula survives, it will be a miracle,” Mother Pelagia Sayaf, who runs the ancient Mar Taqla Monastery, told the New York Times. “Maaloula is empty. You see ghosts on the walls.”
Overall, more than 450,000 Christians have fled since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in early 2011. Syrian Christians are faced with a difficult situation due to their country’s civil war. Many Christians support President Bashar al-Assad out of fear that if he is overthrown and replaced by Islamists, they will face greater persecution, especially from al-Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim rebel groups like Jabhat al-Nusra.