Saidnaya: another Maaloula in the making?

Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya 01

It appears that the Islamist opposition forces who wrecked havoc in Maaloula may be preparing for a similar assault on the equally important Christian village of Saidnaya. On Oct. 1, Fides (a site of the Vatican news network) reported that raids were now commonplace and that one man was dead after clashes the previous day.  The “committee” mentioned in the article is a local militia comprised of citizens from the village. These have, alas, become commonplace. Pravoslavie (a Russian Orthodox site) provides further context, including mention of previous attacks on the city’s famous convent.

One less reported claim from Maaloula was that al-Nusra and company had taken the Safir Hotel back in March and had been harassing the villagers regularly prior to the major assault on September 4th. It is a disquieting precedent and it comes on the heels of an announcement that opposition forces are planning a major attack through the Qalamoun mountains, the range which is home to Maaloula, Yabroud, and Saidnaya.

Saidnaya lies about 30-40 minutes to the south-west of Maaloula along the very same road that Muslim extremists used in their initial suicide attack there. It was, in happier times, one of chief tourist and pilgrimage sites in Syria. The village is predominantly Christian and contains many ancient and important churches. Our Lady of Saidnaya convent dominates the landscape. The Roman emperor Justinian I (ruled 527-565) laid its foundations and it claims to be home to one of the four original icons of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke. Cherubim convent sits atop the adjacent mountainside. St. Ephraim Monastery, home to the Syrian Orthodox community’s Patriarchal for teaching Syriac, lies at the edge of town.

I should add that heavily fortified monasteries usually exist for obvious geopolitical reasons. The main N-S freeway connecting Daraa, Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo also runs through this region, following the basic contour of ancient trade routes. The hills SE of Saidnaya are also home to a number of military facilities and an infamous political prison. Despite these obvious military targets, it deserves notice that the first shots fired in Saidnaya were directed against a church.

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