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Christians fighting for survival against jihadist rebels in ancient Maaloula

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 14th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A Christian town where residents still peak Aramaic, the native language of Jesus Christ, remains an active example of the struggle Christians face as forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad clash with Islamist rebel fighters linked to al Qaeda.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Catholic Online is being informed that as of Friday, the village of Maaloula remains in the hands of the Syrian Army, but that rebel fighters, linked to the al-Nursa Front, continue to cling tenaciously to positions on the edges of the village.

Maaloula is a Christian enclave just 34 miles north of Damascus. It has been a Christian town for two millennia and is one of the first centers of Christendom. Residents there still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. The town has enjoyed a long peace with Christians and Muslims living in harmony.

As a result of its significance and long history, it has become the home of many shrines including churches, caves, and other sites regarded as holy to both Christians and Muslims.

Following the outbreak of civil war, Christians struggled to remain neutral. Sensitive to their precarious plight as both the Assad regime and al Qaeda-linked fighters in the rebel army became increasingly ruthless, the Free Syrian Army pledged to keep fighting away from the ancient community. That pledge has been broken by the fighters from the al-Nursa Front, which is a major rebel contingent of al-Qaeda-linked jihadists.

The jihadist attack began last week with a suicide bombing followed by a full-scale rebel assault. Most residents fled or joined a hastily-formed pro-government militia. The Syrian Army then counterattacked, aiding the Christian militia fighting to defend their homes and churches from the jihadists.

Locals accused the jihadists of desecrating Christian churches and shrines, but other sources confirm that statues and Church buildings remain intact. It is likely that all involved in the conflict understand the political significance of the community. It is thought that al-Nursa is respecting, to a degree, Christian shrines because of the PR value of doing so.

On Tuesday, the Free Syrian Army said it would retreat from the town of Maaloula on the condition that the Syrian Army did not move to occupy it. However, the Syrian Army does now occupy the majority of the town and the rebels are now fighting to retake it.

While the high command of the Free Syrian Army is a political entity, and has sympathy for the Christian inhabitants, the jihadists do not likely have much intention of sparing the Christians over the long-term. Already they have been implicated in the destruction of other Christian churches, shrines, and the kidnapping and martyrdom of several clerics.

In other communities, jihadist rebels have reportedly forced Christians to convert to Islam or face extermination.

According to local sources, most of the town's 3,300 or so inhabitants have fled and very few still reside in their homes.

It is likely that if the rebels win, the al-Nursa brigade will enforce their own brand of evangelism on the populace as soon as world attention is diverted elsewhere. If not the al-Nursa fighters, then other Sunni jihadists will probably replace them and do what they have already done elsewhere.

The conflict in Syria isn't just about the people versus their government. It is about evil clashing with evil and good being caught in between. Meanwhile, the entire world stands paralyzed, unwilling to do anything substantial to promote a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

There are hopes that the current effort to avert American military intervention will also promote a cease-fire and talks between the two sides. However, it should be recognized that the jihadist fighters, the same ones who threaten on the outskirts of Maaloula, have no interest in peace. Their goal is to spread their own brand of Islam by all means necessary.

Until the world recognizes that both secular dictatorships and militant, religious terror organizations are threats of equal value that should be addressed with great vehemence, the crisis in Syria will deepen, mush to the detriment of Christians and other innocents who inhabit the troubled regions of the world.

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