The Christian-Muslim Ghost Town of Maaloula
Maaloula is an ancient Christian town where the locals speak western Aramaic – a language spoken by Christ – has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the Syrian civil war, with attacks on Christians who were eventually forced to make desperate escapes.
Christians and Muslims used to coexist in Maaloula peacefully and despite the civil war raging around them had agreed that their town must remain one of peace. But when Maaloula was taken over in early September by the rebel fighters from jabat al-Nusra, a group with links to Al-Qaeda, not one of the town’s 5,000 Christian residents or virtually a single member of the 2,000 strong Muslim community remained.
All have now fled, fearing for their lives. Maaloula has become a ghost town.
President Bashar Assad sent in the army to drive the jihadists out. With help from Christian and Muslim volunteers, the army claimed a victory of sorts and by 25 September 2013 the rebels had been pushed out to new positions a few kilometers away.
RT’s Maria Finoshina was one of the first journalists into the besieged town and spoke to some of its inhabitants about what had happened when the jihadists attacked.
Antionette Taaleb, a Maaloula resident told RT how jihadists first lied to her and then murdered three members of her family on the first day of the siege.
“We were woken up in the morning by their ‘Allahu Akbar’ shouts,” Antoinette recalls.
“We closed the doors, and we gathered all in one room. They broke into the garden and told us: ‘Surrender and we won’t harm you.’ Antoine, Mikhael, and Shadi went there and surrendered. I heard my cousin outside saying that he never held weapons. I understood they pointed their guns at them. Then they started shooting and throwing mortar bombs into the room. I got injured in my chest and elbow.”
Antionette’s father in law, Suleyman Milaneh, is 88 years old and has never seen anything like this happen in Maaloula.
“We are living in peace, and it seems now they want to displace us Christians from the country. We pray God we’ll conquer them and kick them out,” he said.
There are also stories of a handful of Christians being killed in Maaloula when they refused to convert to Islam, and of al-Nusra extremists taking a perverse pleasure in destroying everything from Christian icons to household furniture.
Forces loyal to Assad eventually drove the islamist rebels out of Maaloula, but in early December jihadists were able to regain a foothold in the ancient quarter of the town, and in an unexpected move abducted 12 nuns including their Mother Superior.
There was uproar from the Syrian government who urged the UN Secretary General and the UN Security Council to intervene. But the rebels themselves insisted they evacuated the sisters for their own safety to the nearby town of Yabroud.
Maaloula is considered to be one of the cradles of Christianity. The town is home to numerous convents, monasteries and shrines, many of which are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. Maaloula is one of the only places in the world where western Aramaic is still spoken, a language similar to the dialect spoken by Jesus Christ.
But many of Syria’s Christian population, who made up 10% of the country before the civil war, are fearful that the islamists want to drive them from the country for good.
“I believe it is all systematic and planned. Forcing Christians to leave… In Iraq, for instance, less than 200,000 Christians remain. We do have concerns, we do hope to stick to our land – Syria, which is the cradle of Christianity,” Sami Housni, a Christian priest in Damascus told RT.
Some 450,000 Christians have already fled Syria since the civil war broke out two years ago.