By Todd Daniels
12/04/2013 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) – The ancient Christian village of Maaloula has again become the site of fierce fighting in Syria. A coalition of rebel groups, including the extremist al-Nusra Front, which has ties to al-Qaeda, attacked forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. After intense fighting over the weekend, they have taken control of the village. Twelve nuns and three other women from the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla were taken by rebel forces from Maaloula towards the border town of Yabroud, an International Christian Concern (ICC) contact in the region reported on Tuesday.
The monastery, which had previously housed 40 nuns and orphans, and at least one other church, were severely damaged in the fighting. After the rebels drove out the forces of the Assad regime, they attacked a number of Christian buildings and three young Catholic men were also killed by the rebel fighters, Asia News reported.
Church leaders have expressed serious concerns for the safety of the women who were taken. Greek Orthodox Patriarch John Yazigi called for the release of the Maaloula nuns. “We appeal to the seed of conscience that God planted in all humans, including the kidnappers, to release our sisters safely,” Yazigi said in a statement issued Tuesday.
While twelve of the nuns were taken from the monastery, many of the other nuns remain trapped inside.
“We call upon the international community and world governments to help secure the release the nuns of Mar Takla Convent and the orphans who are being held since yesterday,” Yazigi added.
Fighting Returns to Ancient Maaloula
In September, Maaloula had been the scene of heavy fighting, but was ultimately held by the government forces, until Friday, November 29. “Rebel forces, including the jihadist Al-Nusra Front, swept into Maaloula from the surrounding hills after rolling explosive-laden tires onto regime troops below,” The Daily Star reported.
The government has been making advances in the strategic Qalamoun region in an attempt to contain the rebel forces. Maaloula sits on the edge of that region, near a highway that provides a transit route from the capital Damascus to the city of Homs. The region is likely to remain a hotspot in the coming weeks.
Before fighting came to the village in September, it had a population of nearly 5,000. Located in the mountains northeast of Damascus, Maaloula is a symbol of Christianity’s ancient presence in Syria and one of the last remaining places speaking Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.
Many of the residents had already fled to Damascus, a resident told Fox News. He was afraid “rebels would punish them for supporting Assad and because they are Christians.”
Gregory III, the Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, honored the three men killed by rebels after they had taken control of the city. Speaking of the dangers to Christians who remain in hostile areas in Syria he said, "We are determined to remain in this blessed land even at the cost of martyrdom and martyrdom of blood.”
“This [martyrdom] has already happened to some of our faithful, such as the three men from Maalula, Michael Taalab, Antonios Taalab and Sarkis Zakhem. They are true martyrs killed for refusing to renounce their faith," the Patriarch said in a statement to Fides.
Most of the Christian community had left, and the majority of those who had stayed in Maaloula were Muslims, with the exception of those who had sought refuge at the monastery.
The reason why some of the women were taken from the monastery remains unclear. There are fears that the women were kidnapped and taken to be abused or held hostage, but others have indicated that they were removed for protection.
Mario Zenari, a spokesman for the Vatican, said the rebels" forced the sisters to evacuate and to follow them towards Yabroud. At this moment we cannot say if this is a kidnapping or an evacuation," he told Reuters by telephone from Damascus.
Based on abuses women have suffered throughout the conflict there are serious reasons for concern. Also, a number of church leaders, including both a Greek Orthodox and a Syriac Orthodox archbishop, have been kidnapped and in some cases killed.
Late Monday night, Pelagia Sayaf, the Mother Superior from Mar Takla and one of those taken, was able to contact the head of a nearby convent and said all twelve women who were taken were “fine and safe,” AP reported.
For those still in the monastery sources for Albawaba said, “The rebels were still in the convent with the nuns and that the shelling and sniping by government troops had prevented their attempts to evacuate them,” leaving a number of nuns and others trapped inside the monastery.
Islamic Extremists Taking “Syria out of Syria”
Many Syrian Christians have either attempted to remain neutral in the conflict or they have supported the government, fearing the Islamic state many of the rebel groups want to create in Syria.
“They are trying to take the Syria out of Syria,” a 23-year-old whose family fled Syria after his father was killed by rebels told ICC. “These are games to destroy the people and culture. It is a war, but they are attacking us as Christians,” he continued.
Another Christian refugee described how the rebel groups in his village were “very angry towards the cross and the church.” After they had removed Assad’s forces, they kidnapped and beheaded Christians, he told ICC. “My daughters could never go outside. We were scared and stayed at home.” They were only able to escape out of Syria with an escort from government troops.
The growing strength of radical Islamic groups has most Syrians, including Christians, afraid of what would happen if Assad were to fall. While early on some of the opposition was fighting for greater rights and freedoms, the movement was hijacked by those pushing an extremist agenda.
Mousab Alhamadee is a Syrian journalist and activist who just recently decided to leave Syria. During the spring of 2013 he traveled to the United States for a few months and in June returned to continue working in the rebellion against the Assad dictatorship. “I knew the moment I arrived back in Syria, however, that things had changed – even though I had been gone just three months,” he wrote in McClatchy.
“The rising prominence of religious radicals augured poorly for a diverse and open society, and the prospects for women were deteriorating. Radicals even had invaded schools, forcing their type of dress and ways of thinking on teachers and pupils alike. No way would we allow our daughter to grow up in such an unhealthy environment,” Alhamadee continued.
Despite his desire to stay and work for a better Syria, the rise of al-Qaeda and other extremists groups forced him to choose exile. Many other Syrians have awoken to the same reality about many of the groups fighting against Assad.
War Crimes from Both Sides
Throughout the conflict, the rebel groups have repeatedly targeted civilians, and in many cases, specifically Christians and churches. Human Rights Watch has released a detailed report chronicling what amounts to war crimes during their October offensive in the Christian village of Sadad. They have called for the international community to become more directly engaged in finding a solution to the war in Syria and seeking justice for the victims of so many atrocities.
The United Nations Human Rights office has implicated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the commission of war crimes during the 33-month-old conflict. Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights said an investigation of “human rights offenses in Syria has produced “massive evidence” of the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” the New York Times reported.
The twelve nuns taken from the Mar Takla monastery are the latest victims of the horrific violence that has engulfed Syria. ICC echoes the call of many church leaders for their release.
While neither side in the conflict appears to offer a bright future, we pray for an end to the violence that has already destroyed so much in Syria, and a negotiated political solution that will restore order to Syria.