Syria’s president marked the Easter holiday with a visit to the recently recaptured Christian village of Maaloula. Maaloula has changed hands several times throughout the Syrian civil war and President Assad is using this recent victory as an opportunity to spread new propaganda. While touring the villages Christian heritage sites, Assad claimed that he intents to protect Christians and their places of worship. Whether these these statements are anything more than propaganda remains to be seen. Christians on the other hand fear direct association with Assad, fearing reprisal attacks from rebel groups still operating across the war torn country.
4/21/2014 Syria (CBS News) – Syria’s embattled president marked Easter with a tour Sunday of an ancient Christian village recently recaptured by his forces, an important symbolic prize for his government ahead of coming presidential elections he appears poised to contest.
President Bashar Assad’s visit to Maaloula, some 40 miles northeast of Damascus, serves a propaganda victory for his government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities as its civil war grinds on.
Meanwhile, questions continue to swirl about allegations of recent poison gas attacks in the country, with French officials saying Sunday there were indications that Assad’s forces were behind them.
Rebels, including fighters from the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, seized Maaloula several times late last year, most recently in December. Government troops swept through the village on Monday, sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills.
Despite damage to holy sites in the village, Assad told Syrian state television: “Maaloula will remain steadfast in the face of barbarism of all those who are targeting the homeland.”
“Nobody, regardless of the extent of their terror, can erase our cultural and human history,” the state news agency quoted Assad as saying as he surveyed damage to the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox monastery in the village.
Assad promised to defend Christians – who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million – and protect churches that he said were part of the country’s cultural heritage. Syria’s civil war has seen Islamic extremists and radical foreign fighters join the fight and target Christians and their houses of worship.
Many of Syria’s patchwork of minority Christian and Muslim faiths support Assad or have remained neutral, fearing for their fate should hard-line rebel groups seize power.
Assad’s visit, while highlighting the recent gains his forces have made around the capital and along the Lebanese border, also took on the air of a campaign-style event. On Monday, Syria’s parliament will open registration for presidential candidates in its upcoming election, scheduled to be held this summer.
Assad has not publicly said he will run, but is widely expected to win another seven-year term. That’s despite the war entering its fourth year, scattering a third of the population and killing more than 150,000 people, according to activists.