Syrian Priest to LA Times: “The West is practicing a double standard: Would they let these militants into their countries to destroy everything?”

The rebels destroyed churches and icons all throughout Maaloula. Church leaders did a recent tour of the Christian city to survey the damage. Photo credit: Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. View more photos of Maaloula destruction here.

“In Syria’s capital, residents recall a sectarian tolerance gone by,”    Patrick J. McDonnell, LOS ANGELES TIMES

DAMASCUS, Syria — The thud of mortar shelling alternated with tolling church bells Friday as the Christians of this capital’s ancient Bab Touma district marked Good Friday amid extremely tight security.

The Easter Week processions that once featured tens of thousands walking the cobblestoned streets of the Old City now are confined to the close vicinity of churches. Soldiers and militiamen checked everyone coming and going on Friday; vehicular traffic was largely closed off as a precaution against car bombs.

Three years into its civil war, Syria is deeply wounded, its 23 million people in a state of shock at the magnitude of the destruction, incredulous that their nation, once known for its religious moderation and cultural tolerance, has become a sectarian killing ground.

Some express hope that major combat could be over by the end of the year, as President Bashar Assad has predicted. Others worry that the war could drag on for years, perhaps rivaling neighboring Lebanon’s 15-year sectarian conflict, which ended in 1990.

A wave of rebel mortar attacks that have struck Bab Touma and other districts of the capital in recent weeks has further eroded the muted optimism that was evident earlier this year. Authorities call the strikes on the government-controlled capital indiscriminate acts of desperation by opposition forces facing disarray and defeat in the battlefield.

Christian worshipers in Bab Touma were on edge Friday after a mortar attack this week that struck the yard of a nearby Christian school, killing a 10-year-old boy and injuring dozens of children. A banner hung on the neighborhood’s Roman-era stone gate memorialized the dead boy, Sinar Matanyos, as a “victim of the rotten crime they called revolution.”

At the other end of the Old City, at the landmark Umayyad Mosque, a shoemaker and grandfather who goes by the nickname Abu Bessam bemoaned the embittered state of his native land.

“We never thought about sectarianism; I never knew the word,” Abu Bessam, 71, said after Friday prayers, as others in the vast courtyard nodded in agreement. “We all used to live together and never care about sect or religion.”

Over and over, individual Syrians insist to visitors that they never knew the faith of their closest friends. Now, however, one’s sect has become a defining trait, something that can mean life or death, detention or freedom.

One young banker here says he lets his mostly Christian co-workers think he is a Christian, though he is in fact a Sunni Muslim. It eases suspicion, he explains. Similar stories abound.

“I used to go to cafes and sit with my friends — Sunnis, Christians, Alawites — it never mattered to me,” Abu Bessam said, shaking his head in disbelief. “I never even asked where people came from. Those days are gone.”

Many can’t bring themselves to point the finger at their fellow Syrians. Militants from across the globe imported this toxic view to Syria, they insist

“It wasn’t Syrians — it was the Saudis, the Chechens, the ones who cut people’s heads off,” said a baker in a Christian town in Homs province, running his fingers across his neck in a throat-slitting motion.

Still, many on each side blame the other for the enmity.

The uprising against Assad, a member of the minority Alawite Muslim sect, arose from the disaffected ranks of the nation’s Sunni majority, though many Sunnis remain aligned with the government and serve in the military. Alawites, Christians, Shiites, Druze and other minority groups have generally remained on the loyalist side, fearing that the rise of Sunni Islamist militants to power could threaten their existence in Syria.

Opposition activists say the Assad government fueled hatred in a bid to portray itself as a defender of Syria’s suddenly vulnerable minorities. It is an article of faith among many opposition advocates that the government somehow facilitated the rise of Al Qaeda-style militant rebel groups, though no definitive evidence exists for the allegation, and the government dismisses it as absurd.

In largely loyalist districts, residents inevitably blame “terrorists” and foreign backers, from Riyadh to Washington.

“The West is practicing a double standard: Would they let these militants into their countries to destroy everything?” asked Father Gabriel Daoud, one of a number of Syriac Orthodox priests presiding at traditional Good Friday Mass…

Read the full article here…

Al Akhbar English: “Kidnappers of Maaloula Nuns Expand Operations”

Photo courtesy of Holy Cross Church, Damascus, Syria
“They all die as martyrs. Blessed are we if we die as martyrs for Christ.” Thus spoke Lebanese nun Mariam al-Haber, in the last conversation she had with a relative before she and several other nuns were kidnapped on 6 December 2012 from the Mar Takla monastery in Maaloula, Syria.
Read about ongoing efforts to secure their release here

Maaloula Burns

The following video appeared on YouTube December 3rd. It is a compilation of images from the fall of Maaloula compiled by pro-regime activists. Most of the camera angles suggest (and the obscured logos in the left corner) suggest that these images were taken by anti-regime fighters to glorify and document their “success”. The lyrics to the accompanying song have a simple repeating theme: Lord, I implore you, give peace to my country!

Islamists Abduct Nuns in Maaloula

**NOTE: This video is supplied only for the sake of its current visuals (posted yesterday, 12-2). Neither I nor LevantReport endorse the specific military or political views expressed therein.**

Yesterday I raised concerns about early reports from the renewed combat in Maaloula. Sadly, confirmation of those initial reports has begun to emerge in today’s news cycle. Based on interviews with the Vatican’s ambassador to Syria, The Daily Star is confirming that up to 12 nuns  have been abducted from the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Thekla and relocated, most likely to the village of Yabroud (about 30-45 min NW). AsiaNews adds some additional details of unstated source. Given that the Catholic Patriarchate is located less than half a mile from the Orthodox Patriarchate on the same street, there is a high probability that this statement came from credible information shared between the two churches.

The Daily Star article also cites claims by opposition forces that they entered the convent merely to protect the nuns from the hostile Assad regime. Given al-Nusra’s history of violence against Christians and the fact that they rained explosive-filled tires down on the village, this claim is patently absurd, especially given that Assad has a history supporting the Monastery and making personal visits. Most of the English-language news so far has ignored the preposterous element of rebel claims, but nevertheless taken then at their word that the nuns are still present at the Monastery, preferring to label them as hostages  (cf. Bloomberg, Reuters, AP via Fox). Given the degree to which the western press agencies trust the pro-opposition activist Rami Abdulrahman, a.k.a. the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, for their information, it is possible that they are taking his agnostic approach to the initial conflict reports. Certainly they have copied his analysis, repeating that the assault is strategic, based on the need to control a major N-S freeway near the village. Had they bothered to check a map, they might have noticed that the village is separated from the freeway by a good 7 miles of winding, dusty road and that another village, Ayn At-Tina, stands far closer. Another 8 miles SW (though at a much lower, less strategic elevation), Qutayfeh lies directly adjacent to the freeway.

Breaking News: Islamists Re-enter Maaloula

Maaloula, Syria: view of the St. Thecla monastery from the top of the rock. In the cove above the monastery there is a shrine of St. Thecla. This file is licensed to Wikimedia under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Earlier today The Daily Star (a Lebanese paper) was one of the first English sources to break the news. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights copied and pasted their work (changing only the spelling of the village) and the story is now beginning to get wider media exposure at AP, NPR, and elsewhere. The derivative stories focus more on the greater context of the battle to control the Qalamoun Mountains, which are strategic to supply lines for both sides.

Sadly, this means that initial reports of a great tragedy are passing in silence. Multiple Arabic Facebook pages are reporting that the Islamists have seized control of St. Thekla’s Monastery and have kidnapped the nuns and the soldiers who were guarding them. Reports claiming to come from foot soldiers stationed in Maaloula indicate that the opposition forces are destroying the convent. All indications are that the girls from the Monastery orphanage and the younger nuns under 60 were relocated to a safer location before the latest outbreak of violence. The Mother Superior and the older nuns chose to stay and there whereabouts not certain. Those whom I have been able to contact in Syria fear the worst.

I point out in full candor that my information is fragmentary and hearsay. That is the nature of information from an active war zone. That said, I would rather express  watchful – and perhaps on some points, overly hasty – concern than wait for a media cycle dominated by football and consumerism to turn its attention to the fate a few pious elderly women who stood their ground against al-Qaeda in one of Christianity’s oldest and most venerable monasteries.

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.