Il villaggio di Maalula, con i suoi antichi santuari arroccati in una zona di montagna vicino a Damasco, è stato la meta di pellegrini da secoli. Ma oggi il paese sta attirando un nuovo tipo di visitatori, e alcuni di loro stanno arrivando armati fino ai denti. Famoso per i suoi siti cristiani, alcuni dei più antichi nella storia del cristianesimo, il villaggio é stato per secoli un simbolo di convivenza tra musulmani e cristiani. Oggi questa pacifica convivenza é solo un ricordo: il paese è ormai diventato un campo di battaglia tra il regime siriano del presidente Bashar Al-Assad e l’opposizione armata. I suoi abitanti, o almeno quei pochi che son rimasti, non sanno a chi dare la colpa o chi rivolgersi per chiedere aiuto.
A recent bout of fighting began when opposition groups waged an attack on a military barracks at the village entrance, with the regime then reacting by shelling the village with heavy artillery, causing extensive damage.
Then, 13 Christian nuns from the village’s ancient convents went missing, and the regime immediately publicised their plight, claiming that they were being held hostage by terrorists bent on persecuting Christians.
The Syrian foreign ministry sent messages to the UN, triggering widespread alarm. However, two days later the opposition released a video showing the nuns living in a nearby town, presumably waiting for the chance to leave an area that has seen intense fighting in recent weeks.
In the video, one of the nuns said that “those who took us have treated us with love and care, and we thank them for giving us everything we have asked for.”
Fahd Al-Masri, spokesman for the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), blamed Christian militia affiliated with Lebanese General Michel Aoun and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah for the recent bout of fighting in Maalula.
Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Masri accused the Syrian regime and its allies of seeking to destroy churches in order “to scare the Vatican and the world about the fate of Christians and minorities in Syria”.
“The attack on the roadblock and barracks was conducted by several Islamist groups. We have learned from these that they were under strict orders to avoid disturbing Christian places of worship, individuals, and heritage sites.”
Although the nuns seem to be safe for now, Christian clergymen close to the regime have used the incident to demonise the opposition.
Bishop Luka Al-Khuri, a patriarchal assistant at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the East, called on all Christian men to take up arms in defence of Syria and its Christian heritage.
“Our young men are ready and willing to fight for Syria,” Al-Khuri thundered. His was the first public call for Christians to defend their community in the course of the current war in Syria.
Patriarch Yuhanna Yazji, leader of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for Antioch and the East, did not go as far, stating that “the systematic assault on churches is meant to divert attention from what is happening in Syria. It is meant to depict the events in Syria as a war on Christians.”
“We are Christians and we are also Arab Syrians who are loyal to this country. We are not children, and we are not going to side unthinkingly with one regime or another,” he said.
A hitherto unknown organisation called the Free People of Qalamun then claimed responsibility for abducting the nuns, offering to release them in exchange for one thousand women detainees held in the regime’s prisons.
The FSA said that no such group existed, claiming that the developments were part of the regime’s propaganda war.
Sanharib Mirza, a representative of the Syriac Assyrian Block in the National Syrian Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, an opposition group, voiced frustration with events in Maalula.
Speaking to the Weekly, Mirza said that “these report do not bode well for the future of Christians in Syria. Some of the extremist Islamist groups are starting to fall into the trap set by the regime by terrorising the country’s minorities.”
Mirza said that Maalula and other mountain villages had no strategic importance for the warring parties.
“If it is true that the nuns were abducted, we refuse under any circumstances to bargain with the regime for their freedom. Christians are not going to become hostages in the Syrian crisis. We will not allow the regime or the opposition to exploit them.”
Mirza called on Muslim clerics to instruct the armed opposition to avoid actions that could harm Syria and its minorities.
What happened in Maalula will have no impact on the immediate course of the war, observers say, but its psychological significance for Christians in Syria cannot be denied.
A former Christian member of the Syrian parliament speaking on condition of anonymity said that the Christians had become the target of aggression as well as pawns in the wider war.
He said that the regime was trying to exploit the Christians “in order to win international recognition of its claimed role as the protector of minorities”.
Over the course of the past few months, the regime has abducted several Christian men and clergymen, including two bishops in Aleppo. “The danger today is greater than at any time before,” the former parliamentarian added.
Since the first day of the Syrian revolution, the regime has been trying to depict the opposition as bloodthirsty extremists who are intent on killing and subjugating all who differ from them in faith.
The recent tragedy in Maalula is only part of this strategy, opposition figures say.
A recent report by Syrian rights groups makes the same claim. The report, which accuses the Syrian regime of exploiting the situation of the Christians, was released by the Assyrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights, the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies, and the Syrian Human Rights Network.
While condemning the regime’s attacks on Christians, the report says that some of the abuses were conducted by the opposition. It notes that since the Revolution started, the regime has destroyed 36 churches, while the opposition has only attacked four.
The regime, the report claims, has murdered scores of Christians for failing to do its bidding. More than 100 Christians have been killed by the regime “for refusing to comply with its sectarian designs and for opting instead to stand by the country’s higher interests”, the report says.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and other moderate Islamist groups in the opposition have denounced the attacks on the Christians, saying that the protection of all Syrians is now a top national priority.