In Maaloula Syria, Christians Are Caught between Islamist Rebels and Assad's Dictatorship

For the past week, a battle has been raging between Syrian rebels and government forces in the ancient Christian village of Maaloula, situated in a mountainside to the north-east of Damascus.

Most of the town’s 3,300 residents fled to Damascus when the rebels first moved in. Free Syrian Army (FSA) units and members of the jihadist al-Nusra Front who have occupied Maaloula, are battling with Syrian Army troops for control of the village and its surrounding areas. 

Rumors of atrocities are rampant but until the government forces retake control of the village, they are difficult to verify.

A Maaloula resident said the rebels, many of them sporting beards and shouting Allahu Akbar, or God is great, attacked Christian homes and churches shortly after moving into the village overnight.

“They shot and killed people. I heard gunshots and then I saw three bodies lying in the middle of a street in the old quarters of the village,” said the resident, reached by telephone from neighbouring Jordan. “So many people fled the village for safety.”

Now, Maaloula “is a ghost town. Where is President Obama to see what befallen on us?” asked the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal by the rebels.

According to one eye witness, five Christians were seized and  told, “either you convert to Islam, or you will be beheaded.”

A  Christian woman from the besieged town who had fled to Damascus, tearfully told a BBC reporter about the Free Syrian Army & Al Qaeda infestation, and begged Obama to stop sending them weapons “because they are killing us!” When asked by the BBC reporter what the rebels looked like, she said said they were wearing “Free Syrian Army” clothes. Those would be "moderates" Obama has been arming, who are fighting right alongside the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front.

When the reporter asked her about Obama’s plan to punish the regime for killing civilians with chemical weapons, she cried, “no that’s wrong! It’s wrong!…it’s a big liar (sic) you can watch the video (this one?)  and you can tell…”

Jenny McCartney writing at the UK Telegraph offered the counter narrative that the rebel fighters may have been lured into the village by government forces, "in order to show the world the spectacle of Islamist rebel forces wrecking a Christian historical site."

She noted that "the fog of war has descended, and rumour, motivations and perceptions are swirling in it. In civil wars, warring factions write scripts for each other as well as themselves, with one eye to the watching world: they lay propaganda traps for their enemies, even if it means destroying something they themselves once valued."

The Al-Nusra front may be aware of the potential for a public relations disaster in Maaloula: at the time of writing, the large statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking the town remains intact. Still, often rage escalates beyond strategy. 

Many of the local men have joined a pro-government militia with the aim of driving the rebels out, and one of them fiercely told the BBC reporter Jeremy Bowen to inform the Americans and the EU: “that we sent St Paul 2,000 years ago to take you from the darkness, and you sent us terrorists to kill us”. 

You can imagine how that will go down with the average television viewer in the American mid-west, as his President half-seeks US intervention on Syria to back the rebels, a troubling proportion of whom hold broadly the same beliefs as the men responsible for 9/11.

The majority of Christians and other minorities remain loyal to Assad – not because, in many cases, they have any innate respect for him, but because they are terrified of what will happen to them if he falls. Who is to say they are wrong about that? The Al-Nusra Front is a significant, fanatical, well-armed and ruthless element of the rebel forces. In July, its fighters ransacked a monastery in Northern Syria and murdered a Franciscan priest, Father Francois Murad.

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