The "good" rebels and Syria's Christians

The Obama administration and the governing media hope to draw a distinction between the “good” anti-Assad rebels in Syria and the ones who are affiliated with Al Qaeda. But Robert Fisk reports a more disturbing story…

Mar Tecla Monastry

In Aleppo, an Armenian church has been vandalised by the Free Syrian Army, the “good” rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, funded and armed by the Americans as well as the Gulf Sunni Arabs. But in Raqqa, the only regional capital to be totally captured by the opposition in Syria, Salafist fighters trashed the Armenian Catholic Church of the Martyrs and set fire to its furnishings. And – God spare us the thought – many hundreds of Turkish fighters, descendants of the same Turks who tried to destroy the Armenian race in 1915, have now joined the al-Qa’ida-affiliated fighters who attacked the Armenian church. The cross on top of the clock tower was destroyed, to be replaced by the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

That’s not all. Reuters gives us a frightening glimpse of the way the rebels have treated a Christian town known to many in the west:

Islamist fighters in Syria have taken over the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula and are holding several nuns in a monastery there, state news agency SANA said on Monday.

But the monastery is in the old part of Maaloula, which is now under the control of the Nusra Front and other rebels, he said. Four rebel fighters were killed in fierce fighting on Monday as the army and pro-Assad militia fought to retake the district, Abdulrahman said.

As many Americans know, Maaloula is a small town north of Damascus where a dwindling number of people still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Although many people speak languages descended from Aramaic, scholars believe that the variant spoken in Maaloula and environs bears a close (but not exact) resemblance to the tongue heard in the first century. Years ago, I read a story about how the residents of that city eagerly traveled to Damascus to see The Passion of the Christ, the first major motion picture filmed in their language. They complained that the actors spoke Aramaic so poorly as to be unintelligible.

A portion of the ancient and fascinating Mar Thecla convent, located on the outskirts of Maaloula, is depicted to your right. There were reports that the Free Syrian Army (the rebels) has abducted a number of the nuns.
On Monday, Syrian state television reported that several nuns had been abducted from the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Thecla after the ancient part of the town was captured and the convent attacked. The Syrian Foreign Ministry sent letters to the head of the UN Security Council and the UN Secretary General urging the international community to condemn the attacks by militant groups on Maaloula and the convent, and to put pressure on the countries supporting the opposition. The leader of the Orthodox Church of Antioch has also called on the international community to help save them.

It now appears that the nuns were not abducted but relocated out of the war zone. Mar Thecla was carved out of the mountains where the rebels are now hiding. (If you do some googling, you’ll see the “Defile of St. Thecla,” which would seem to provide excellent cover for a military unit.)

Here’s another description of the fighting in that area:

It is a terrible story in this most beautiful of towns, with its 17 churches and holy relics and its great cliff-side caves. Now the fighters of Jabhat al-Nusra – a rebel group with links to al-Qa’ida – are surviving in the caves and shooting down at the Syrian soldiers in Maaloula’s streets with Russian sniper rifles. You have to run from house to house…

Not one of the 5,000 Christian residents – nor a single member of the 2,000-strong Muslim community – has returned. Maaloula is, almost literally, a ghost town. Only Georgios and his friend Hanna and a few other local Christian men who joined the “national defence” units to defend their homes, are left. At least 10 Christians were murdered when the Nusra militia began its series of attacks on Maaloula on 4 September, some of them shot – according to Hanna – when they refused to convert to Islam, others dispatched with a knife in the throat. And there is a terrifying historical irony about their deaths, for they were slaughtered within sight of the Mar Sarkis monastery, sacred to the memory of a Roman soldier called Sergius who was executed for his Christian beliefs 2,000 years ago.

Hanna says that before the war reached Maaloula this month, both Christians and Muslims agreed that the town must remain a place of peace. “There was a kind of coexistence between us,” Georgios agrees. “We had excellent relations. It never occurred to us that Muslim neighbours would betray us. We all said ‘please let this town live in peace – we don’t have to kill each other’. But now there is bad blood. They brought in the Nusra to throw out the Christians and get rid of us forever. Some of the Muslims who lived with us are good people but I will never trust 90 per cent of them again.”

Could there be better evidence of Nusra’s desire – and that of almost every side in this conflict – to sectarianise the war? People accuse the saintly Mother Agnes of “taking sides” in this civil war. Is it any wonder…?


1 reply

  1. Of course not only Christians are being targeted. War is war – and every war seems to be worse than the last one. And every one kills every one. May Allah have mercy on Syria and Syrians …

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