By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)– Rebels linked to terror group al-Qaida have captured the Christian town of Maaloula as part of a campaign to take control of strategic mountains near the capital Damascus, opposition representatives confirmed Sunday, September 8.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the hard-line Islamist rebels of the al-Nusra Front entered the area late Saturday, September 7, raising concerns about counterattacks.
Local residents reportedly expressed fear their historic village would turn into a symbolic, if not strategic, battleground for Islamists and government forces.
While the al-Qaida backed fighters took control over the town, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad hinted he and his allies will retaliate if Syria is attacked in an expected United States-led operation in response to last month’s chemical weapons strike.
These developments added to worries that Christians would be in the crossfire in a possible proxy war between U.S. backed rebel groups and Russian-supported government troops.
The al-Qaida linked al-Nusra Front was expected to use the ensuing chaos to increase their influence in the area. It already has emerged as one of the most effective groups in the Syrian resistance with foreign fighters having combat experience in Iraq and other trouble spots, observers say.
Videos seen on the YouTube website in recent days showed fighting between rebels and government forces in the tiny town of Maaloula, an hour’s drive from Damascus.
“We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs,” a rebel commander could be heard shouting at the camera in a video posted online over the weekend.
Most people in Maaloula fled the town Wednesday, September 4, when fighting broke out around a roadblock and Syrian fighters bombarded the area, witnesses said. Ten Assad loyalists were killed, but no death toll was immediately available for the rebel side, activists told reporters at the time.
It was not immediately clear what would happen with churches in the area.
Earlier, “Several villagers took refuge in a convent,” said Middle East Concern (MEC) a Christian advocacy group.
“Footage has emerged suggesting that the opposition forces sought to avoid direct damage to churches, and those forces soon withdrew from the village,” by Friday, September 6, MEC said.
“However, Christians remain concerned by the influence of Islamist opposition groups in several areas,” MEC told BosNewsLife just before the latest raid by al-Qaida linked fighters.
The troubles came shortly after Christians in Syria and Pope Francis observed Saturday, August 7, a day of fasting and prayer for this wounded nation.
The pope also condemned the use of chemical weapons, along with all other forms of violence, but renewed his appeal “for an urgent effort towards a negotiated settlement” rather than military action.
Thousands of Christians, including many women and children, have fled Syria but thousands stay behind, praying and worshiping, according to Christian aid workers and activists. Many of those who fled have sought shelter in monasteries in neighboring Lebanon, though others are still searching for permanent accommodation as winter approaches.
Christian refugees have been uprooted by anti-Christian violence that also saw the kidnapping of two top bishops, while a well-known priest remains missing after being kidnapped.
“The most reliable estimates suggest that at least four million [Syrians] are displaced within the country and that more than two million are officially registered as refugees in neighboring countries,” MEC explained.
Syria’s roughly 2 million Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have been targeted for suspected sympathies to President al-Assad or following what Islamists view as a “Western religion”, aid agencies say.
The country is ruled by a government dominated by Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiism. The leadership is opposed by an opposition with a large Sunni presence and with increasing influence of hard-line Islamists linked to al-Qaida, according to observers.
“Syrian Christian leaders are appalled by the continuing violence and violations of human rights,” MEC told BosNewsLife. “Their consistent message is that a solution can only come through political dialogue and that all parties must
prioritize the needs of the Syrian people.”
In a statement, released by MEC, Syrian Christians urged prayers that “peace, justice and reconciliation will be established in Syria” and for “the renewed effort to find a political solution will be heeded by all those in authority and with influence.”
They also asked prayers for “effective provision for those internally displaced and for refugees”, including many Christians.
Syrian Christians also urged prayers to ensure that, “The international community will cease using Syria as a place to pursue their own agendas and act only in the best interests of the Syrian people.”
More than 100,000 people have died in the 18-month-long Syrian conflict, which has grown into a civil war between government and divided rebel forces, according to United Nations and other estimates. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
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