09/16/2013, 00.00
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Maaloula refugees celebrate the Exaltation of the Cross, pray for their martyrs

"The small town conquered by the rebels is now deserted," sources told AsiaNews. In the capital, refugees organised celebrations-Mass, Eucharistic adoration and vigils-in lieu of traditional processions and bonfires. "The event was dedicated to our martyrs and the suffering of Syria," a Maaloula Christian said.

Damascus (AsiaNews) - Christian refugees from Maaloula and Damascene Christians celebrated the feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross on Saturday with a Mass, prayer vigils for the martyrs and small celebrations outside churches across the capital.

The celebration dates back to 320 AD, when Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, sent officials to Jerusalem to find the Holy relic of the cross on Mount Golgotha, which they did on 14 September.

In order to inform the emperor and his mother, who lived in Constantinople, bonfires were lit on every peak located along the 1,170 km that separate the two cities.

For centuries, Maaloula was the centre of this celebration, with pilgrims and faithful gathering each year from around Syria and the world.

"Preparations [this year] have been very sober," sources (anonymous for security reasons) told AsiaNews.

"This is a far cry from peace time when the whole town of Maaloula, now in the hands of Islamic extremists, was dressed up to the nines with bonfires burning until dawn."

"This year the festival was dedicated to our martyrs, the suffering of Syria."

A vigil was also organised in the Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus in memory of the three Christians killed by extremists, attended by all refugee families and hundreds of people.

Since extremists attacked on 5 September, Maaloula has been a ghost town. "Islamists are holed up in the small town and are involved every day in violent clashes with the army. Everything has now been destroyed-our homes, our places of worship, everything."

In recent days, the last families that had been held by shelling managed to escape. None of the town's 10,000 Christians are left. Only the nuns at the Greek-orthodox monastery of Saint Tecla have chosen to remain to pray and defend the sacred place. (S.C.)

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