Syria’s Embattled Christians Don’t Know Which Side to Believe

Assad regime and rebels trade blame over who is responsible for the fighting in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula.

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The battles that have been raging since last week in the Syrian town of Maaloula have thrust Syria’s Christian community into the international spotlight.

Located 50 kilometers west of Damascus, Maaloula is full of historic churches and monasteries and some of its residents still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke 2,000 years ago

The fighting began when rebel forces, after capturing army checkpoints on the main road from Homs to Damascus, entered the town and reportedly set up camp in a hotel and outside several monasteries. The rebels deny that the well-planned assault, which coincided with last week’s G-8 meeting in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, was aimed at putting pressure on the leaders gathered there. Rather, they said, it was essential for them to take control of the checkpoints on the Homs-Damascus road in order to ensure their supply lines.

In a bid to win Christian support, the rebels distributed a video clip showing a field commander urging his men not to harm the town’s churches and monasteries. The Assad regime countered with pictures of the rebels shooting in the air and at various buildings in Maaloula, as well as of a local church damaged by mortar fire.

The rebels accuse the regime of planning to exploit their presence in the town to damage Christian holy places, harm the local population and then blame the rebels for it. But Facebook posts by Maaloula residents reveal fear that members of Jabhat al-Nusra, a rebel militia affiliated with Al-Qaida, will be the ones to attack local Christians and/or loot their holy sites. The town has already suffered civilian casualties from the shelling and gunfire and some of its young people have taken up arms and organized into local security committees in an effort to protect it.

Over the weekend, Syrian television reported that the rebels had left the downtown area and the army was pursuing them. But pictures from Maaloula posted on Facebook showed the fighting continuing. Two days ago, the Free Syrian Army posted a video clip saying the rebels were willing to withdraw from the town if regime forces would promise not to enter in their stead. The group, a coalition of several rebel militias, said it made the offer to prevent bloodshed and keep Maaloula out of the fighting.

Lebanese newspapers, especially those affiliated with Lebanon’s Christians, have been reporting extensively on the events in Maaloula.

Christians, who comprise about 10 percent of Syria’s population, have generally stayed neutral in the civil war, though the fighting has damaged many Christian churches and institutions, especially in Damascus and Aleppo. The community is often thought to be closer to the Assad regime, based on public statements by leading Christian clerics who assailed the rebels. On the other hand, some key figures in the rebels’ diplomatic arm, the Syrian National Coalition, are Christian, as are some of the revolution’s leading publicists.

A well-known Syrian publicist who lives in Damascus told Haaretz this week that though both sides in the civil war are trying to present themselves as defenders of the Christians, the community is worried and afraid.

On one hand, they fear a rebel victory would turn Syria into an Al-Qaida state. The kidnapping of several Christian clerics, along with the dissemination of pictures of beheaded Christian clerics, have crystallized these fears. Yet on the other hand, they hear promises that pluralism and religious freedom will reign if and when the Assad regime falls.

Uncertain whom to believe, Syria’s Christians feel caught between the hammer and the anvil.

Entrance to the Christian town of Maaloula, northeast of Damascus.Credit: AP

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