The fate of the small, predominantly Christian town of Maaloula, Syria, remains uncertain after remaining rebel factions continued to clash with the occupying Syrian army over the weekend. Reports from the area indicate that most of the village's cathedrals and worshipping spaces were abandoned Sunday due to the threat of a continued rebel presence linked to al-Qaeda.
Although Syria's army, loyal to President Bashar Assad, claims to have re-taken control of the small town north of Damascus at the beginning of the weekend, reporters visiting the war-torn region have said that in the past few days, rebel fighters have remained on the fringes of the town, firing at army forces from nearby caves that overlook the small mountain city.
"There was hardly time to notice the white statue of Christ the Redeemer on the hillside before we were fired on, bullets aimed at our van, blowing our tire and holing the chassis. We screeched to a halt and scrambled clear," Bill Neely, the International Editor for ITV News, wrote in an Op-Ed for The Telegraph.
"We were caught in the middle of a town the Syrian army had declared liberated from rebel control the day before. But it was not, and for the next four hours, I witnessed a fierce battle as the army tried to dislodge the snipers of, among other groups, Jabhat al-Nusra, the fighters allied to al-Qaeda," Neely added.
Neely goes on to write that the town's historic cathedrals, monasteries and churches that should have been filled on Sunday in celebration of the festival of the Holy Cross were instead abandoned, with the town's 2,000 inhabitants fleeing in the midst of continued bloodshed and fighting. The clashes began two weeks ago when al-Qaeda linked rebel fighters, including the Jabhat al-Nusra group, attacked the city. Not only is the city controlled by government forces loyal to President Assad, it also serves as a strategic trade gateway to neighboring Lebanon. Rebel fighters attacked using a suicide bomber and then shooters positioned with machine guns in a church at the top of the village.
Syria's army then sent re-enforcements to the Christian village to drive out the rebels, resulting in a days-long battle between rebel forces and Assad loyalists. The country has been embroiled in a bloody civil war for the past two years between forces loyal to President Assad and his regime and rebel forces seeking to overthrow the government. Although many of the rebel fighters simply wish for a new Syrian government to be installed, some factions are Islamic extremists linked to the al-Qaeda terrorist organization that wish to have Syria become a completely Islamist state.
Horror stories relating to the Christian population of Maaloula surfaced in the midst of fighting last week between rebels and loyalists. Two particularly horrific stories originating from the town last week involve Jihadist fighters forcing Christians in the town to convert to Islam or be put to death, and one Jihadist slitting the throat of a Christian in front of his fiancée, telling her "Jesus didn't come to save him."
Maaloula is a historically-rich town in Syria, as it holds two of the country's oldest monasteries, Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla. It has served as a haven for Christians in the country, and is one of three places where Western Aramaic, the language believed to be spoken by Jesus, is still used.
As loyalist and rebel forces continue to grapple for control of Maaloula, President Barack Obama has announced his plans to pursue a diplomatic option with Syria following the White House's accusation that President Assad carried out a chemical weapons attack on his own people on August 21 that left over 1,000 civilians dead. Although the Obama administration previously announced its intention to carry out a limited military strike, it later announced it would further explore other diplomatic options with Russia, a Syrian ally, in which the Middle Eastern country would give up its chemical weapons arsenal to international control, where it would then be dismantled.