By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)-- Muslim rebels linked to terror group al-Qaida are forcing Christians in a besieged historic Christian town to convert to Islam or face death, residents confirmed Wednesday, September 11.
Fighters of the al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, forced "at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint" and executed another in the town of Maaloula, an hour's drive from the capital Damascus, Christians said.
The well-informed Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Christians claimed earlier that rebel forces, including al-Nusra jihadists, had overrun Maaloula in the preceding days.
Clashes in Maaloula reportedly began early on Wednesday, September 4, with a suicide bombing at a government-held checkpoint on the edge of the town, killing at least 10 people, Christian activists said.
After initially retreating from the village following fierce fighting with government forces, rebels returned over the weekend.
FREE SYRIAN ARMY
Fighters affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army also entered Maaloula, but the al-Qaida linked group appeared to be stronger, BosNewsLife monitored.
"They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday [last week] and shouted 'We are from the al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," a term for Christians used by Islamists, said a frightened woman who identified herself as Marie in an interview with French news agency AFP.
She was among those attending the burial of three Christians from Maaloula killed in last week's fighting.
Syria's anti-government rebel fighters said they would withdraw from Maaloula only if the Syrian army agreed not to enter the troubled town, BosNewsLife learned Wednesday, September 11.
There was no immediate known response from Syrian officials, and the stand-off continued.
RIGHTS ACTIVISTS CONCERNED
Christian rights activists said they were concerned about the plight of trapped Christian residents and damaged church buildings in the area.
"As clashes between the two sides intensified, claims have emerged of serious damage to at least three church buildings. A local Muslim leader spoke out against the attacks, but to no avail," advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC) told BosNewsLife in a statement.
It also expressed concerns "that homes have been looted and that some Christians have been kidnapped or forced to convert to Islam."
Several Christian townsfolk managed to flee, seeking shelter with fellow Christians in Damascus, according to MEC investigators.
MEC said, "Maaloula, a UNSECO world heritage site, is home to one of the few-remaining Christian communities that speak a version of Aramaic," the language that Jesus is believed to have spoken.
CHRISTIANS URGING PRAYERS
In a statement released by MEC, Syrian Christians urged prayers that the "bereaved, wounded and traumatized will know the healing touch of Jesus" and that "there will be effective provision for those displaced."
They also asked prayers that "each area of Syria will be governed wisely", that "calls for renewed effort to find a political solution will be heeded" by authorities and that "the international community will cease using Syria as a place to pursue their own agendas."
The call came while in Washington President Barack Obama was weighing his options after Russia said it would back a proposal for international monitors to take over and destroy Syria’s arsenal of chemical weapons.
Obama told his nation late Monday, September 10, that he would hold off on military action for now to study the proposal.
However he did not rule out a later strike in response to last month's chemical weapons attack, which Washington says was carried out by forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
"It’s too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments,” Obama explained, speaking from the White House.
“But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force,” he acknowledged.
Obama stressed however that the international community must ensure a chemical attack won't happen again.
“The images from this massacre are sickening,” Obama said in emotional remarks. “Men, women, and children lying in rows, killed by poison gas, others foaming at mouth, gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk.”
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is 'Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals' since 2004).
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