The road to Maaloula is eerily deserted. You can’t see a single vehicle for kilometers on the well-developed highway. The small Christian pilgrimage site is located about 60 kilometers north of the Syrian capital Damascus. You can see cars sporadically shortly after leaving the outskirts of Damascus, most of which belong to the Syrian military or security forces.
On the route lies the town of Adra. Two huge dark columns of smoke rise from the horizon. Adra, actually an industrial settlement, found itself in war since a few days. Terrorists attacked the city and brought parts of it under their control. Terror rules there, refugees report. The Islamist attackers perpetrated a massacre against whoever worked "for the state": teachers, civil servants, soldiers, police officers and even the employees of large state-owned bakeries.
A small cross is dangling from the rear view mirror. Wadee, the driver, is a Syrian Christian. Again and again the ground underneath us trembles when the Syrian artillery fires. To our left is the Syrian army, to our right is the smoking Adra. Small groups of civilians with backpacks, refugees from Adra, cross the street towards the army base trying to escape town. "These people have lost everything but were able to save their lives", says Wadee, who pays attention to the road to avoid potholes and small craters.
The final stop is a small settlement right before Maaloula. One cannot proceed any further. The army has placed chunky concrete blocks on the road. The house of Abu Mohammed is like a dovecote. The 60 year-old professional driver lives here with his family. His grandchildren are running around in the living room. Abu Mohammed lives in the last house right before the Maaloula front. Soldiers from the Army base are allowed to use his shower and his toilet. "Thank God they are here", says Abu Mohammed about the soldiers. Maaloula has been deserted for weeks. There are only the Islamist guerrillas and units of the Syrian army fighting in the neighboring town, civilians were evacuated by the army. Abu Mohammed is glad that he can stay in his house, he says and serves fresh fruits and tea. His old truck is no longer in its parking spot, but instead a BMP-1 fighting vehicle of the Syrian army. In the meantime, the wind carries the sound of machine-gun fire from across Maaloula.
Maaloula was once regarded as a historical and cultural jewel of Syria. Busloads of tourists visited the ancient monasteries before the outbreak of war in 2011. Maaloula was known worldwide as the small town where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, was spoken. One of the first Christian communities in the world was created in Maaloula, where also one of the oldest church exists. Maaloula is filled with symbolism. Islamist terrorists stormed for the second time into the mountain village in beginning of December 2013. They destroyed some historical buildings, killed civilians and took twelve nuns of the Greek Orthodox Mar Thecla monastery as hostages. To date, their whereabouts are unknown.
The atmosphere in Maaloula was already tense in the summer of 2012. Rebels attempted to conquer Damascus in July 2012. The operation was called "Damascus volcano", which failed miserably after about five days. The war was not to be felt in Maaloula before. Pilgrims from other Syrian cities were in the old orthodox monastery. They attended the Mass and lit candles for their slain and fallen loved ones. There was not much military presence in the small mountain village. The war seemed infinitely far away. The residents of Maaloula had rejected a strong military presence. They did not want to be drawn into the war. "He who seizes the sword shall perish by the sword" they would have quoted from the Bible, tells a Syrian journalist. But the sword had long since taken the others. The decision was not of the peaceful inhabitants of Maaloula. The Islamist insurgents have carried the war into the mountain village. On September 5, 2013, a terrorist group shouting "Allahu Akbar" attacked Maaloula. They raided Orthodox churches, burned icons and tore the cross down from the dome of Sergio's Monastery. Snipers took up positions in Thekla Monastery. Many civilians managed to flee to Damascus; others found themselves hostages of the Islamist attackers. In the Lebanese newspaper Daily Star, an eye witness says: "They shot people. I heard gunshots and then I saw three corpses in the middle of a street". "Many have fled the village for safety reasons. Maaloula is now a ghost town” the eyewitness continues. In an interview with the BBC, a Christian from Maaloula who managed to flee to Damascus described in tears how “they had to leave behind all their possessions when the rebels in FSA uniforms with covered faces marched into the village. The people left everything behind, they could not even take their money", she complained. She held U.S. President Barack Obama and U.S. allies responsible for arming the Islamist forces who now brought death and destruction to her town. "Obama must stop delivering these big guns, rifles, etc. to the rebels because they will kill us”.
The attack on Maaloula startled many Christian circles in the West. The fact that the same Islamist militias being supported by the West led to harsh criticism of the present course of European governments. A spokesman for the so-called "Free Syrian Army" (FSA) announced in mid-September that the militias would withdraw from Maaloula. In reality, the terrorists, who operate under the name FSA, established a base in Maaloula. Meanwhile in Damascus, several thousand people attended the funeral of the three young Christian Syrians who had been murdered by Islamist terrorists in Maaloula. After lengthy negotiations with the leaders of the Islamist terrorists who occupied Maaloula, three more bodies of Christians who were killed on September 7 in Maaloula were returned by paying ransom. However, the withdrawal from Maaloula claimed by the FSA was part of a disinformation campaign to "pacify" the west. "The corresponding declarations are false and only serve to weaken the media attention" said Asianews. The Christians who fled from Maaloula even denounced in Sepember 2013 in a letter addressed to the U.S. Congress the crimes of the Islamist rebels against the civilian population and the destruction of churches, monasteries and their homes. The letter states: "The fighters of the Free Syrian Army, the terrorists of al-Nusra and the murderers of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant attacked the area at four o’clock in the morning. Within hours they destroyed houses, monasteries and churches. They destroyed all holy representations and commanded people to renounce their faith and convert to Islam if they wanted to stay alive".
There was a second wave of terror and violence in early December 2013. According to the official Syrian news agency SANA, Islamist insurgents penetrated during this time the Orthodox monastery Mar Thecla, located in the city center. “Twelve Syrian and Lebanese nuns were abducted”, Radio Vatican quoted the representative of the Holy See in Syria, Mario Zenari. Their whereabouts are unknown to this date. The outrage in the West is limited. This does not come as a surprise to Syrians. "The West has forgotten and betrayed us", says a Christian from Sednaya, also a Christian pilgrimage site. But in Sednaya the residents have armed themselves and organized a local defense committee. Attacks by Islamist guerrillas have, so far, successfully been repelled again and again. However, the town is repeatedly shelled by terrorists hiding in the mountains. Not a single line is mentioned by Western media about civilians being killed there. But even in Sednaya they got used to it. "We expect nothing more from the West", says the Christian that was beeing interviewed.
There is still a battle raging in Maaloula. Colonel Ezad watches the one kilometer distant Maaloula through his binoculars from behind the earth mound. Rattling machine guns are heard again and again, smoke arises from several buildings in front of him. Colonel Ezad points to a jeep making its way through Maaloula. "These are terrorists", he says and hands over the binoculars. And indeed, a machine gun is mounted on the jeep. Colonel Ezad reaches the radio and gives the order to attack. After a few seconds it pops, a cloud of smoke is still visible where the Jeep was standing. It is December 25, 2013; many Christians are celebrating Christmas while the soldiers from Maaloula keep the enemy at bay. Among the Syrian soldiers are also Christians. How do they celebrate Christmas? A young lieutenant smiles bitterly and replies: "we celebrate Christmas when we have won the war, not before". Slowly the small cloud of smoke from the jeep wreck blows with wind to the west.
Fighting continued in Maalula even during the Christmas holidays. The Lebanese newspaper Al- Akbar reported in early January 2014 about icons and art treasures stolen from Maalula being traded on Internet platforms of the Islamists. Representatives of radical Islamist groups sought interested and affluent western buyers for Christian art objects. Since the beginning of the war in Syria nearly three years ago, icons, crosses and altar furniture were constantly stolen from Christian churches and offered on the international art and antiques market. Museums around the world have now created a "red list" of stolen Christian art from Syria.
Colonel Ezad is aware of the threat to the cultural, religious and national heritage of Maaloula. "That makes everything much more difficult for us", he explains. What he means: One cannot simply bomb Maaloula from outside without the risk of damaging its historical treasures. Therefore, the Syrian army engages in smaller battles and skirmishes with the Islamist guerrillas to expel the terrorists. Hundreds of terrorists have fallen in recent weeks and months, says the Colonel; but the reinforcements arriving to the rebels are all about prestige.
One thing seems to be certain: Work only begins after the Syrian army brings Maaloula completely under its control. "We hope that the civilians come back", says a soldier from Ezad’s troops. This concern seems entirely justified: Many Syrian Christians plan to leave their homes for good after their traumatic experiences. Every third of the 21 million Syrians are today refugees in their own country. Many managed to flee the country, among them at least 450,000 Christians. The Patriarch of the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church in Damascus, Gregory III Laham, is fighting against the Christian exodus. As new waves of immigration began after the raids on several Christian towns in December, he called on the oppressed Christians to persevere. "We will remain in this blessed country even if it leads to martyrdom". Patriarch Laham wrote these lines while Syrian soldiers pulled out the bodies of civilians from a well in the predominantly Christian city of Sadat. Islamist terrorists had killed the Christians and thrown them into a well.
Pictures from my trip to Maaloula in July 2012: