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Jabhat al-Nusra and Other Islamists Briefly Capture Historic Christian Town of Ma’loula

Ma’loula (or Maaloula) is one of those unique places you may be lucky to visit—or perhaps were lucky to have visited, were you fortunate enough to have been in Syria before the conflict began.

Written by Matthew Barber Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes

An ancient town in a hollow encircled by mountain cliffs descending from their heights to offer shelter to the homes built directly against their sides… exploring its many secrets is to be transported back in time. Ancient monasteries, old churches, rock faces with cave dwellings and tombs—the place is brimming with rich historical treasures.

Ma’loula is also unique for being among the minority of Syrian towns where Christians comprise a majority, though this status has by now eroded to the point where Christians are only a slight majority. Still, the town represents the survival of the Christian community stretching back to the early days of Christianity.

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But the cultural wealth preserved in the town precedes Christianity; Ma’loula is one of the last places on earth where the pre-Christian language that once dominated the Near East, Aramaic, is still spoken. In use from almost 1000 years BCE, Aramaic was the most important language of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia by the time Christianity entered the scene. Aramaic remained the lingua franca of the Near East until its ascendent position was supplanted by Arabic when Islam spread east, west, and north from the Arabian Peninsula. Aramaic had been an important language for conducting trade from Egypt to the borders of India, until the arrival of a sacred text—the Qur’an—whose effect was strong enough to issue the challenge that its own language take the place of most important tongue.

The dialect used in Ma’loula is labeled “Western Aramaic,” and is now only spoken in this small city and in two neighboring villages. A few years ago, President Assad began to officially support the efforts of Ma’loulans to conduct language preservation through Aramaic education programs in local schools. Though the generous Ba’athists never extended this right to the Kurds, it was a positive step toward strengthening the health of the local culture of Ma’loula. But yesterday, both the actions of Syrian rebels, as well as the response of the regime, will have the opposite effect on this fragile community.

Today, the position of such highly endangered languages is made more precarious by instances of violent conflict. It is important to note that most speakers of Aramaic dialects—Eastern and Western—are minorities: Christians, Jews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Mandeans. We’ve been able to observe clearly the destructive toll that conflict in the Middle East takes on minority and Christian communities, a phenomenon that unfolded before the world’s eyes in Iraq, and which has also been recently intensifying recently in Egypt. As the Syrian conflict has developed, we’ve also seen that minority Christian communities are often some of the most vulnerable segments of the population, and their numbers have already vanished from many of their cities, after fighting has become intense, or after rebels gained control of their areas. Being caught between warring factions, as well as a sense of exclusion experienced as non-Muslims when something that Islamists call “Islamic law” is implemented, prompts many Christians to emigrate from their homelands in the Middle East.

The Syrian conflict has certainly affected every Syrian to some degree, but it affects some areas more than others. Many towns have still managed to escape direct involvement, but given enough time, the conflict manages to find its way to everyone’s doorstep.

Until yesterday, the community in Ma’loula had avoided the direct presence of the conflict, but that all changed in the early morning (Wed., Sept. 4, reportedly around 5:30 am) when a Jordanian suicide-bomber named Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (yes, same name as the famous al-Qaida figure) detonated a car bomb at the checkpoint guarding the entrance to Ma’loula, killing the soldiers there and allowing al-Qaida-linked rebels to roll into town in 20 pickup trucks with machine-guns mounted in the back.

The video and photographic evidence available after the attack indicates that the operation was a coordinated effort between (at least) the following groups: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Baba ‘Amr Brigades (a rebel group possibly affiliated with the SIF – Syrian Islamic Front), FSA Commandos Unit, and Soqour al-Sham. A video from Ahrar al-Sham can be found here. A video of shooting, apparently as part of the initial attack, is here.

My own Ma’loulan sources tell me that displaced people from Duma (between Ma’loula and Damascus) had taken up residence in Ma’loula, and cooperated with the rebels to facilitate their entrance. Ma’loulans now resent them for acting as a 5th column inside the very community that gave them shelter when they fled their own town as refugees. The danger with such cases is that it will generate suspicion and ill-will toward refugees generally.

Other photos of rebels posted online after taking Ma’loula can be found herehere, and here. One poster of photos from the operation to take the checkpoint refers to the soldiers as “apostates.” One poster seems to be from Somalia (unknown if he participated in the attack).

A Facebook page shows an alleged photo of one of the soldiers killed in the attack. Reportedly, at least 8 soldiers were killed on the first day.

Ma’loula only has one mosque. When the rebels entered the city center, they went to that mosque to declare victory and perform a typical chorus of takbiir (the shouting of Allahu Akbar).

According to Ma’loulans I spoke with, the attack involved two fronts. After the checkpoint was disabled, the Safir Hotel, located on the rocky cliffs overlooking the city, was appropriated by the rebels, who used it as a staging point for shelling. Some have said that they shelled the city from there; it seems that shells were fired from outside the city, as well.

After the Islamist-led rebel alliance took the town, the Syrian regime responded by sending in aircraft to attack the rebel positions. This is the ever-disastrous pattern to the Syria conflict: rebels take a town doing its best to mind its own business, and the regime comes to the defense of the town and destroys it in the process. I spoke yesterday with a Syrian Christian who traveled near Ma’loula during the time of the attack. Like many Christians in the country, he has no love for the oppression of the regime, but remains somewhat “pro-regime” in relation to the conflict, since the threat of Islamists showing up and taking over his town outweighs his dislike of the regime. I asked him, “Regardless of the fact that these rebels invaded uninvited, would it not be better for the regime to just leave them alone, rather than conducting an airstrike on one of the most historical places in the country?” He responded sadly: “They don’t care. They will destroy anyplace the rebels are to be found.” He reminded me of other historical treasures that have been damaged through the regime’s response to rebel incursions, such as occurred in Palmyra, and recently at the Qal’at al-Hosn (Crac des Chevaliers), a magnificent Crusader castle and important tourist attraction that the regime bombed after rebels set up base inside. For someone who has defended the regime’s side during the conflict, his attitude of exasperation toward the scale of their responses was telling. Still, residents of Ma’loula have expressed gratitude for the military reinforcements sent in to expel the unwanted rebels. Many in Syria still prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t—though they’re getting to know the latter all the same.

After the regime’s counterattack, the rebels withdrew back inside the Safir Hotel. Initial reports said that after a 3-hour battle the military was able to drive the rebels out of the town. Today this has proven to be otherwise; rebels remained in the hotel all night and all the next day, and fighting resumed around 6:00 pm today, when rebels conducted another attack. The rebels lost the town yesterday in the sense that those in the city center were driven out, and only those in the hotel were able to remain. But the presence of rebels was not eliminated, as hostilities resumed today. Today’s fighting was allegedly more intense, as rebels moved through the alleys between homes, shooting. Apparently, young residents of the town tried to defend their areas even though they lacked weapons, and some were injured when standing up to the rebels.

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The big question is: Why Ma’loula? What need is there for rebels to capture this town? Talk of “liberation” certainly has no currency when the local residents aren’t asking for any and would prefer to be left alone. Was there any strategic importance to the town? Or was it merely an easy target for “victory,” not well-guarded and unable to resist being taken over? Some have suggested that taking the town was needed in order to link to opposition resistance efforts in the nearby Qalamoon region. Jabhat al-Nusra’s official account, however, referred to the attack as part of the “Eye-for-an-Eye” revenge campaign, initially declared after the chemical weapons attacks in the Ghouta.

Al-Jazeera’s reporting was one-sided, as usual. It explained the attack exclusively in strategic terms, noting the town’s connections to other nearby communities with a rebel presence. They failed even to mention Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in this campaign, instead referring only to the FSA’s involvement and ignoring the central role of Islamists in the operation.

When the rebels first came into the town, they reportedly told people “Don’t be afraid; stay inside your homes.” A video posted online by the Katibat Souwar Bab ‘Amr shows a rebel speaking to his men, affirming that (paraphrase, not verbatim):

We don’t shoot at any church or at civilians; we’re only here to push back against the oppression and will only target those who target us. They (the people of the town) are our people and part of our country. The regime has persecuted everyone, from all sects. Here we are in front of the church and everything is safe and the houses are safe.

Despite the affirmation of goodwill toward civilians and the pledge to not harm churches, I was told that the first mortar fired by rebels hit a church. Since then, others have conveyed to me that churches and monasteries have been damaged in yesterday and today’s fighting. Even if the damage is unintentional, local residents will likely not feel very understanding toward their uninvited “liberators.” I was told that at least some of the rebels cursed some Christians and threatened to kill them for being infidels. The rebel speaking in the video quoted above may reflect one group’s approach to taking the town, but several groups with different ideologies were participating, and Nusra’s presence confuses things. When Nusra’s revenge campaign began, many threats were voiced against towns and civilians. Though it seems that civilians survived largely unscathed in the events in Ma’loula, it is disconcerting to see the attack associated with a revenge campaign. One of Nusra’s photos for the attack on Ma’loula was published on Facebook with a verse from the Qur’an stating: “Allah give us patience and victory over the infidels”—perhaps not the best slogan to use when launching an al-Qaida-led attack in which a Jordanian Islamist blows himself up at the gate of the oldest Christian village in the country.

It is hard to know how unified they were on their post-invasion behavioral code, but we have more than one report (including from my own contacts) alleging that multiple churches/monasteries were damaged and/or ransacked. Reports online of churches burned in Ma’loula are false and can be attributed to propaganda sources with a pro-regime orientation, exaggerating the degree and kind of damage that occurred. However, my own source alleges that the Mar Taqla monastery was hit with two shells, and there are varying reports of other attacks. Three articles on Lebanese and Syrian websites offer conflicting reports on exactly which churches were damaged: 1, 2, 3. In one of them, the Melkite patriarch is quoted claiming that rebels broke into multiple Christian homes and churches, burning crucifixes and icons. The other two articles give conflicting accounts of the report received by the head nun of the Mar Taqla Monastery. One account has her claiming that 15 nuns and the orphans they care for had to sleep inside of a cave in the mountain, while the other has her claiming that the monastery was not attacked.

While we’re waiting for more details on the actual damage, my contacts claim to be certain that Ma’loula’s Aramaic Language Education Center (an institute that works for the preservation of the language) was broken into by rebels and looted.

There are no details on what was stolen, but that this particular institution would be targeted seems to underscore the earlier point about the vulnerability of religio-linguistic minorities. This vulnerability is what has prompted Pope Francis to issue a statement today to the leaders of the G20 countries, opposing military intervention in Syria.

… amid the U.S. threat of military intervention, Vatican and church officials have warned that a world war could erupt, with Christians in the region bearing the brunt of the fallout…

Though many details on this story need further clarification, one thing is certain: the situation led to the fleeing of many Ma’loula residents to Damascus. An area that previously received refugees is now sending out its own, and the dwindling numbers of Aramaic-speakers are no longer comfortable within their remote mountain fastness.

This post originally appeared on Syria Comment


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