(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Syrian Christians have fled the village of Maaloula as rebels and Syrian goverment forces fight for control over the mountainous village.
Syrian government forces have launched an offensive to take back a predominantly Christian village from the al-Qaeda linked rebel groups currently controlling it, Reuters reported today.
While Maaloula has barely over 2,000 residents, it sits in the Qalamoun mountains, occupying a strategic position between the Syrian capital city of Damascus and the country's other prominent city of Homs. But the mountains are not only militarily and logistically significant. They also hold many of the country's monasteries and churches, including Mar Thecla, a site renowned for its healing powers.
Since the al-Nusra rebels arrived in Maaloula last Wednesday, power has shifted three times between Syrian government forces and rebels.
In a recent YouTube video posted by al-Nusra, a rebel fighter explained that the group has no intention of occupying the city but that they merely want to set up a military station there.
"Soon we will withdraw from this city not out of fear but to leave its homes to their owners. They were not our target. Our target was mainly military," a fighter said in the YouTube video, according to Reuters.
Later in the YouTube video, two women dressed in traditional Christian clothing testify that the rebels have treated them "very well," though none of their other statements can be made out due to the din of fighting in the background.
Though contradictory reports from Christian civilians and government make it unclear whether the rebels have pillaged Christian institutions, since fighting started last Wednesday, the majority of Maaloula's residents have fled the violence. On Saturday alone, 18 rebels were killed and 100 wounded, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Further, the attack has only exacerbated Christian fears that they will find themselves helpless to rebel and government fighting. Since the start of the civil war in 2011, many Christians, who make upon 10 percent of the country's population, have stayed on the sidelines of the conflict, wary that joining the protesters could jeopardize the security given to them by President Bashir Al-Assad's regime. As Assad has brutally cracked down on the rebels, Christians have increasingly become a target for the anti-Assad and al-Qaeda linked groups.
The fighting began on Wednesday morning when an al-Nusra suicide bomber blew up a military checkpoint in Maaloula. After the blast, Syrian rebels entered the city, fighting government forces, and took over a mountain-top hotel, using it as their center of military operations.
The group proceeded to shell the village below, damaging several churches in the area and sending villagers fleeing the city or finding shelter in a convent. According to a nun, the convent's 27 orphans, in turn, hid in a nearby cave.
Maaloula's Christian heritage goes back hundreds of years; its residents speak Aramaic, the same language that Christ is believed to have spoken. Every year its religious sites bring tourists and pilgrims from around the world.