On September 7, al-Qaeda-affiliated rebel group al-Nusra seized control of the historic Christian town of Maaloula in Syria. “We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs,” proudly declared a rebel commander in a posted online video. The group, however, withdrew this week, only days after seizing control.
I visited Maaloula in the summer of 2008. A small town of approximately 3,000, Maaloula sits on a mountainside 40 miles northeast of Damascus.
I remember Maaloula as a peaceful, beautiful and completely unique town. Some in Maaloula still speak Aramaic, the language attributed to Jesus Christ. Maaloula is a home to important Christian monasteries. Muslims have lived together with Christians in this town. So significant is Maaloula, that it is on the UNSESCO list of proposed world heritage sites.
But now reports have been pouring in about al-Nusra’s forced conversions on the pain of death, and murder, as Syria’s small Christian minority is trapped between Assad forces and the hardline rebels.
In the absence of sufficient Western involvement in the Syrian conflict in the last two and a half years, al-Nusra has grown to be one of the most effective rebel groups fighting Assad. Traditionally, Syrian Christians—one of several persecuted minorities in Syria— tend to side with Assad, who gave them a degree of protection in exchange for their support. For this, they have become the targets of rebel extremists.
This week’s events reflect the increasingly-sectarian nature of the conflict in Syria, as the West continues to remain indecisive, and observers can only grieve for Maaloula.
Anna Borshchevskaya is Communications Director at the American Islamic Congress