"Maaloula is the wound of Christ"
"Maaloula is the wound of Christ," mourners chanted as they carried the coffins of their loved ones through the narrow streets of the Old City's Christian quarter.
Reports from the BBC, France 24, CNN, Breitbart and sundry Twitter threads are confused and contradictory. It is not clear if the forces of Assad's regime are managing to defend this ancient Christian enclave or the jihadi 'rebels' of the al-Nusra Front are prevailing. There is certainly shelling and gunfire, but doubts persist as to the precise targets and the fate of some of the oldest churches and monasteries in Christendom, such as the Deir Mar Takla, which is visited by Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike.
There are casualties on both sides. Jeremy Bowen for the BBC says he has seen about half a dozen wounded government soldiers. Others have witnessed the twisted corpses of opposition forces. There are reports of the kidnapping of bishops and the beheading of other Christians. Some are being forced to convert at gunpoint or are summarily executed. The remnant have fled to safer parts of the country or sought safe sanctuary in Lebanon.
There was once interfaith community harmony here: Christians and Muslims lived and worshipped in peace, side by side. Not any more. Now they mourn for a lost life and weep at separate funerals. The overriding fear is that their Alawite guardian Bashar al-Assad will lose and they will be targeted by sundry Sunni-Wahhabi jihadists declaring the establishment of an Islamic state. There will no space in it for the Christians. They will be forced to convert or leave. If they refuse to leave they will die. Their communities will be destroyed. It is the will of Allah.
"We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs," declares an al-Nusra commander.
"They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted 'We are from the al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," reported one inhabitant.
Al-Nusra is one of the most effective groups in the Syrian resistance, committed to what we might call an Islamist ideology, but to them it is simply Islam. Another is the Qalamun Liberation Front, an umbrella group consisting of several anti-regime forces of the Qalamun area near Damascus.
The battles are raging, but each side blames the other. "The regime wants to portray us as extremists," says a 'rebel' spokesman, "But we would not target any sacred places." He blames Assad's forces for damage to religious buildings. "We have withdrawn from Maaloula because we want to show that our goal is not to destroy but to liberate," he said. "We will stay on the edges of Maaloula, but residents who have left the town can, of course, return safely."
It is difficult to discern truth from an armchair in England. It is impossible to dissect poisonous propaganda or determine precisely what is going on. But there are rather too many reports of men wearing al-Nusra headbands targeting Christians and shooting at crosses. Two bishops and a priest are certainly missing. Testimony is compelling of jidahi murder and hatred: "One of them put a pistol to the head of my neighbor and forced him to convert to Islam by obliging him to repeat 'there is no God but God.’ Afterwards they joked, 'he's one of ours now.'"
Another Christian refused, so they shot him. "Jesus didn't come to save him," they taunted.
With Christianity being incrementally eradicated from the Middle East, the world needs to stand up and say enough is enough. And we need to pray earnestly for our brothers and sisters throughout the region. Their suffering is heartbreaking; their burden intolerable. We have absolutely no idea.