Free Syrian Army fighters take up positions with their weapons behind a wall in Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood.
BEIRUT: Syrian government forces launched an offensive to wrest back control of an historic Christian town north of Damascus yesterday, activists said.
In the past six days, the town of Maaloula has already changed hands three times between President Bashar Al Assad’s forces and rebel groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.
Combatants say the intensity of fighting over the town is due to its strategic location near the road leading from Damascus to the central city of Homs.
But fighting in an area with such religious symbolism could increase anxieties among the Christian minority, who have watched sectarian violence between majority Sunni Muslims and the Alawite minority overshadow the revolt against Assad’s rule.
The fighting near Maaloula, in the Qalamoun mountains north of the capital, threatens ancient Christian sites nestled in the hillsides that were a site of pilgrimage for Christians and Muslims alike.
The Britain-based Observatory, which opposes Assad, said that troops and militia loyal to the president re-entered Maaloula early on Saturday but withdrew in the evening when rebels brought in reinforcements.
Retreating government forces continued to shell and clash with insurgents on the outskirts of Maaloula on Sunday and yesterday, said Rami Abdelrahman, head of the Observatory, though violence inside the town abated last morning.
Maaloula has several churches and important monasteries as well as the Greek Orthodox nunnery Mar Thecla, visited by many Christians and Muslims who are drawn by its reputation as a holy place where the sick are miraculously healed.
A sizeable number of the inhabitants of Maaloula, as well as Sarkha and Jabaadeen, two nearby Sunni towns, still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
Abdelrahman said 18 rebel fighters were killed and over 100 injured during Saturday’s fighting. He could not confirm the extent of casualties among government forces.
Yesterday, a group formed to foster ties between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches appealed for the release of two prominent Syrian bishops still missing after their abduction in Aleppo province in April.
The Syriac Orthodox and Greek Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo, Yohanna Ibrahim and Paul Yazigi, are the most senior Christian leaders caught up in the revolt against Assad in which many prominent Muslim clerics have died.
Authorities have blamed the abduction on a “terrorist group”, the label they usually give to anti-Assad rebels, but opposition fighters in the northern province denied they kidnapped the two and said they were working for their release.
A declaration from the Vienna-based Pro Oriente foundation called for the immediate release of the clergymen and all others kidnapped in Syria. It sought a negotiated end to the conflict there without any “illegal external military intervention”.
Christians make up less than 10 percent of Syria’s 23 million people and, like other religious minorities, many have been wary of the mainly Sunni Muslim uprising against Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shia Islam.
The statement on behalf of Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn and six other church leaders called Christians in the Middle East “an essential and indispensable element of society” who would contribute to building up a society characterised by peace and mutual respect.
Signatories included officials of the Antiochan Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian and Armenian Catholic faiths, it said.
The two missing bishops had warned of the threat to religious tolerance and diversity from the conflict in Syria, which has killed more than 100,000 of their compatriots.