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Syrian rebels have reportedly re-entered the historic Christian town of Maaloula, north of the country's capital of Damascus, this week while battling forces loyal to the country's President Bashar al-Assad. The rebel forces have been occupying the small, predominately Christian town intermittently for the past several months as they battle in the surrounding Qalamoun region. Recent reports from witnesses in Maaloula indicate that the Islamic rebels have reportedly kidnapped a group of nuns from a local monastery in the city.
Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a local monitoring group, told The Daily Star on Sunday that the rebels are trying to regain control of the city as they clash with regime troops. The city sits in a mountain region and consists of tall look-out posts in the form of chapels and church spires that prove advantageous for camouflage and sniper nests.
"Fierce clashes are under way between rebel fighters, including the Al-Nusra Front, and regime troops in Maaloula, which the rebels have entered and are trying to gain control of," Abdel-Rahman said.
Rebel fighters, who are attempting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and his government, previously entered the Christian city in late September. Although the majority of rebel fighters simply want a new government to be installed in the country, some Islamic factions, including the Al-Nusra Front, are associated with hardline Islamic groups like al-Qaeda and seek to have a completely Islamic state installed in the country following the possible overthrow of al-Assad. Horror stories from Maaloula indicate some of the rebel fighters have treated the city's Christian inhabitants violently, forcing them to convert to Islam or die.
Another report stemming out of Maaloula indicates that since the rebels recently re-entered the city, some Islamist extremists have reportedly kidnapped a group of nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St Thecla.
"Armed men burst in the monastery of St Thecla in Maaloula this afternoon. From there, they forcibly took 12 women religious," Monsignor Mario Zenari, the Vatican nuncio in Damascus, told AsiaNews. The women have reportedly been taken to Yabrud, a small town about 50 miles north of the capital. The reason for the recent kidnapping remains unknown.
Maaloula, a small town that contains several monasteries, churches and cathedrals, is considered historically important among Christians because it contains two of the country's oldest monasteries, Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla. Additionally, the town is considered a haven for Christians in the country and is one of three places where it is believed the language spoken by Jesus, Western Aramaic, is still used.