Before jihadists overran this mountain town in 2013, Maaloula was one of the oldest Christian communities in Syria, where Western Aramaic—the language of Jesus Christ—is still spoken.
It was also a place of profound peace, where Sunni and Shiite Muslim residents, along with their Christian neighbors, forged a pact early in the war to avoid the sectarian conflict ripping their country apart. “We decided that even if the mountains around us were exploding with fighting, we would not go to war,” Mahmoud Diab, a Sunni imam, told Newsweek in 2012. “It’s a sectarian war, but the fact is, there is no war here in Maaloula. In this town, we are not defined by religion. We all know each other. Everyone is a Christian, and everyone is Muslim.”
Tolerance had been a tradition in Maaloula since St. Takla—the daughter of a pagan prince and an early disciple (and possibly wife) of St. Paul—fled to these mountains in the first century. She was escaping soldiers sent by her father, who was threatening to kill her for her ardent faith in her adopted religion. St. Takla was exhausted and, finding her way blocked by the sharp, rocky sides of a mountain, fell on her knees in desperate prayer. Legend has it the mountains parted, and she escaped. Maaloula means entrance in Aramaic. For centuries, Christians and Muslims have come here to pray for miracles, but the residents of Maaloula weren’t blind to the dangers that swirled around them when I visited on several occasions in 2012 and 2013. “I am afraid of the kind of people who will come here,” said Antoinette Nasrallah, a Syrian-American, originally from Miami, who owned a café in the center of town. “I am afraid of Salafists.”
Still, an ancient way of life prevailed in the convents and monasteries of Maaloula, set amid apricot trees that attracted songbirds.
The idyll was shattered on September 4, 2013, when a Jordanian suicide bomber exploded a truck at a Syrian army checkpoint at the entrance of the town. Eight soldiers were killed. Rebel opposition soldiers and jihadists fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad attacked, and the battle of Maaloula, a UNESCO-protected town, had begun. The Syrian army led a counterattack two days later, regaining control, but the fighting continued. The rebels again took the town and this time burned down churches and began to drive out Christian residents.
At that point, nearly the entire population of Maaloula fled. Some went to Beirut, an unfortunate reminder of the gruesome slogan chanted by opposition members at rallies from the beginning of the conflict: “Christians to Beirut, Alawites to the coffin.”
The Syrian government eventually took back Maaloula, but in November 2013 more opposition forces—including the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra (the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria)—attacked. They kidnapped 12 nuns from the monastery to exchange for their captured fighters.
For nearly six months, the ancient town was again under siege until April 14, 2014, when the Syrian army—with the help of Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia—once more took control of Maaloula.
Recalling the assault by jihadists, 62-year-old Adnan Nasrallah told the Arabic daily newspaper Al Akbar: “I saw people wearing al-Nusra headbands who started shooting at crosses,” adding that one of them “put a pistol to the head of my neighbor and forced him to convert to Islam by obliging him to repeat, ‘There is no God but God.’
“Afterwards they joked, ‘He’s one of ours now.’”
The Syrian army still controls most of Maaloula, but only around 150 Christian families have returned. Many houses have been gutted by fires, and the churches and monasteries are damaged from the fighting.
As the season of Lent and abstinence leading up to Easter began in Maaloula in February, the faithful few gathered to pray. But they are no longer praying for cures for ailments or for a profitable harvest from their fields. Now they are praying for survival, because they know hundreds of their fellow Christians have been kidnapped and murdered by ISIS.
Despite this, they refuse to flee, because Syria is their country, their home. Mahmoud Diab, the imam, has left the town, but Antoinette Nasrallah is still in Maaloula. When I spoke to her by telephone a few weeks before Easter, she said the reason was simple: “It has to do with history.”
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Janine Di Giovanni and Conor Gaffey