Beirut (AsiaNews) - According to families who fled Maaloula (Syria), some of their Muslim neighbours were involved in the attack that devastated their village located about fifty kilometres from Damascus, dispersing its residents.
Perceived as a betrayal of the long-lasting trust that existed between Christians and Muslims in Maaloula, where Muslims make up about 30 per cent of the village population.
The presence of young Muslim fighters from the village among Syrian rebels appalled the Christian population. However, it is a sign of the growing ambiguity of Syria's armed rebellion.
These facts give that battles that occurred in Maaloula from 3 to 7 September another perspective. Speaking for the first time anonymously, survivors from Maaloula described how elements from the Syrian Liberation Army and the al-Nusra Front coordinated their attack in an attempt to take control of the town.
The explosion of a car driven by a suicide bomber at an army checkpoint at the village entrance was the signal for the attack. Almost immediately, armed rebel groups sprung out from within Maaloula, smashing doors to gain entrance into Christian homes.
With dramatic details, witnesses describe the climate of terror that prevailed, the summary execution on Saturday of three men who, after a failed attempt by the Syrian army to retake Maaloula, refused to recant their faith as well as the kidnapping of six others, whose fate remains unknown to this day.
One of the survivors reports that his house was invaded almost immediately after the car's explosion at an army checkpoint. Rebels came into the house and moved around as if they were familiar with the place.
After escaping with her husband and their daughter in the rearmost room of their home, she was joined there by attackers who claimed to have smashed the statue of the Virgin Mary at the entrance of the house.
A stifled sob in her throat, she remembers how she wished to die rather than see daughter raped before her own eyes. Fortunately, her fears were not realised. Nevertheless, she does remember that her husband was forced to recant his Christian faith, the barrel of an assault rifle at his head.
When she remembers how US Secretary of State John Kerry described the SLA forces as "moderate" before a Senate committee, she shakes her head in a sign of weariness over such ignorance or bad faith. In her eyes, the Western press seems to have lost all credibility.
According to some analysts, the attack against Maaloula might have been encouraged by the climate of euphoria that accompanied the prospect of US punitive strikes against Syria.
However, a counter-offensive by the regular army, supported by village youth, followed by a last minute unexplained pullback, proved even more devastating.
The Christian officer who ordered the withdrawal was arrested Maaloula residents say.
The families who fled the village took refuge mainly in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of Damascus, but some have joined relatives in Lebanon or the convents of the Greek Catholic Church in that country. No Christian refugees are said to be living in tents.
Today, the people of this village, a living icon of Christ's time since his language, Aramaic, is spoken there, are temporarily dispersed.
A mass was celebrated for them at the headquarters of the Greek Catholic archbishop in Beirut on the feast day of St Thecla (24 September), "equal of the apostles" according to a tradition associated with Maaloula.
Despite the reassuring presence of a Syrian army checkpoint, the village is within firing range of rebels hiding in the surrounding higher ground.
According to eyewitness accounts, burning tires have been rolled down the hill towards some of the houses in the Christian Quarter, and gunmen have fired at fuel tanks near homes in order to set them on fire. These actions are a clear signal to Christians that they are no longer welcome in their own town.
Reeds are now growing in Saints Saris and Bathos Greek Catholic Monastery, a place no one can approach now.
From a distance, one can see that the cross on its the dome is broken and that part of the building bears traces of fire. Nothing is also known about the fate of the 10th century icons it housed.
It has been a time of painful days for Mar Takla (St Thecla) Orthodox Monastery as well. Located between the Maaloula hill held by the rebels and the army-held central square, the complex has 40 nuns and orphans. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Damascus has called on the parties to ease its resupply.
In some church circles, some wonder why Maaloula was seized in the first place given its lack of military significance. They wonder if, in addition to the Christians in this village, Christianity itself was targeted through the Aramaic- speaking community, like the Taliban in Afghanistan when they destroyed the giants Buddhas, believing that by doing so they would eradicate ancient beliefs and superstitions, totally insensitive to religious or even cultural diversity.
There is no doubt, indeed, that the dispersion of Maaloula's Christian community endangers the priceless cultural legacy that the town, by its very existence, represents.