BEIRUT — A coalition of Syrian rebel groups that includes members of al Qaida took control of one of the oldest Christian villages in the world on Sunday, raising concern about the potential destruction of ancient shrines and churches.
Rebel commanders vowed to protect the inhabitants of Maaloula and the village’s holy sites, but there were worries that the town’s many churches, monasteries and shrines from Christianity’s earliest years could be damaged as the Syrian government counterattacks to regain control.
Maaloula is located about 35 miles northeast of Damascus in the mountains along the border with Lebanon. Its residents, who still speak Aramaic, the language Jesus is thought most likely to have spoken, are loyal to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Announcements of the town’s capture after five days of fighting that saw it change hands repeatedly were issued by the Nusra Front, a rebel group that has sworn allegiance to al Qaida, another conservative Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al Sham, and the more mainstream Farouk Brigade.
Witnesses in the town have told local media organizations that the government forces withdrew completely from the center of the village of about 5,000 on Sunday morning but that regime artillery and jets had begun to target rebel positions in the center of the town.
It was not immediately clear if the rebels had occupied sensitive religious sites in the village, which has little strategic value but could become a potent symbol if its historic sites fall victim to the violence..
Commanders from the Rebellion of Baba Amr, which is part of the Farouk Brigade, one of the largest rebel formations, could be seen on social media videos announcing the victory from Maaloula’s recognizable town square.
“We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs," said an unidentified Farouk commander to his men in one video, as the famed shrine to St. Takhla, one of Christianity’s oldest sites, could be seen in the background.
The Nusra Front released a statement of victory on a Facebook page associated with the group and a number of videos released online by Ahrar al Sham showed that group in several locations also within the village. Both groups follow strict conservative interpretations of Islam that forbid shrines to saints, and many Christians feared they would damage the sites or harass the residents of the ardently pro-Assad town.
A statement from the Syrian Military Council, the group through which the West funnels aid to more moderate rebel groups, vowed to protect both the sites and “religious minorities” residing in the village.
“We emphasize that we are working very hard to protect all minorities and have sent army units to protect the people of Maaloula and importantly, all of the monasteries and shrines,” the statement said.
But the military council doesn’t command either the Nusra Front or Ahrar al Sham, and both groups have fought pitched battles with military council-affiliated groups before. Nusra and Ahrar al Sham generally are considered the anti-Assad movement’s most effective and aggressive rebel fighters, making it unclear that the military council would be able to enforce its pledge to protect the area.
Christians make up about 10 percent Syria’s population and have generally sided with the government against the rebels, who are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims.
The Obama administration has offered military and logistical support to the military council, although there is little evidence that much support has reached it. The United States and the European Union have designated the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, and there are concerns that any aid from the West to the military council could end up in Nusra’s hands, given how closely military council-affiliated rebels and Nusra coordinate their military activities.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent