Orontes website reports: One of Syria’s Oldest Churches Destroyed

The Orthodox Church of Sts. Constantine and Helen looted and burned in the town of Yabroud

Orontes: Syrian Christians in a Time of Conflict – In the Syrian city of Yabrud Islamist terrorists have ruined one of the country’s oldest Christian shrines – the church of Sts. Constantine and Helen. The building dates    back to the first millennium BC, when the site was a pagan temple. It became a church in 331 AD. The Church contained a collection of priceless historical icons and church utensils. On February 21 first reports emerged of the desecration of the Church. Some locals report and the crime was committed by a group of people of European appearance who arrived under the protection of militants, and that  they were armed with M-16 rifles and other small arms. For an hour they emptied out of the church of its valuables, and set fire to the building.

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Voice from Damascus: the plight of Syria’s Christians – Interview with Majd Lahham

Damascus is a modern, bustling, secular city
Damascus, Syria

Majd Lahham, a resident of Damascus, agreed to a long distance interview with Levant Report this week. He is a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church headquartered in Damascus and spent years as head of the program for Iraqi refugees in the Office of Ecumenical Relations for the Patriarchate of Antioch, and as local coordinator for International Orthodox Christian Charities.

As the conflict in Syria spread in 2011, he increasingly became involved in relief work for internally displaced Syrian refugees. In the Fall of 2012, Majd toured multiple cities throughout United States as part of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. He attempted to raise awareness among Americans of the plight of Syria’s two million strong Christian community, and shared his experiences of working with Iraqis and displaced Syrians. Sadly, the plight of Syria’s Christians is an issue that is still largely ignored in mainstream press, and by most Americans.

Majd currently teaches at a private college in the Damascus area. His views should not be taken to express the official opinion of the Orthodox Church of Antioch. He speaks as private Syrian citizen.

Full interview transcript: 

LR (Levant Report): Thank you for your willingness to do this interview during a busy time. We understand that you maintain a full teaching schedule at a private college in the Damascus area – this is refreshing to hear about as it is a sign of normalcy and stability in the city. What is daily life like in Damascus right now?

M. Lahham: It is a very difficult life. Lots of necessary items are not available. Prices have sharply increased. What were once essential food items for families are now considered luxuries. For example, the price of one egg before the crisis was 5 Syrian pounds and now it is 30 Syrian pounds (in the U.S. this would be like a simple carton of eggs suddenly costing close to $15). If you want to go to your work, you have to cross at least three checkpoints. You will never know if you will come back home or you will be killed by a mortar or by a suicide bombing. Usually we lose electricity for 6 hours a day. However, if a terrorist bombs a fuel line, we lose the electricity for almost one day until the lines get repaired by the government. It is dangerous to travel outside the city of Damascus. Sanctions by the United States and Europe have made daily life even worse. Ten thousands of people are now starving. They eat only bread and some vegetables. Some people who are now under siege by rebel groups are out of food and they are boiling available spices like cinnamon to maintain even a little energy.

LR: Western media gave little attention to the rebel shelling of the Christian school in Qassaa on November 12, which killed multiple children and wounded many more. Have the rebels continued their attacks on the Christian districts of Damascus since November? What is the situation for Christians near the Old City?

M. Lahham: Yes, on daily basis. For instance, yesterday (Feb.12) a mortar shell hit the Bab Touma area near the Armenian church.

The Christians living near the old city of Damascus are protected by the government. They can go to work and study etc… But the mortars are still a major problem. I think the one million dollar question is this: why are Christians being targeted in all Syrian cities and villages in an organized way by the so-called “rebels”? We are a minority. We do not have any militia. We have a good historical relationship with all Muslims. There are even statements by their Prophet Muhammad that say that Christians have to be respected.

I think what is going now is an attempt to create a new Sykes-Picot Agreement and create new, smaller ethnic countries where there will be no place for Christians.

LR:  We are all hoping and praying for the release of the nuns, but what can you tell us about the general situation in Maaloula right now? Have any Christian residents been able to return to their homes, or do terrorists still control the village?

M. Lahham: Unfortunately, the situation is bad in Maaloula. The rebels control this area. Our Christian heritage has been destroyed. Graves have been desecrated and icons were stolen or burned. The Christian people of Maaloula are now in Damascus with no money or property.

LR: What can you tell us about the situation in Saidnaya right now?

M. Lahham: Saidnaya finds itself in a different situation than Maaloula. The people in Saidnaya decided to defend themselves. They carried weapons and created a local group to protect Saidnaya. Surprisingly, those armed people are made up of simple workers and employees. They work every day in Damascus and then return to Saidnaya in the afternoons and evenings, whereupon they work in shifts to protect the village. I have a friend from Saidnaya who is working as a driver; he couldn’t pick me up because he had a shift in Cherubim Mountain at that time. Two weeks ago, hundreds of rebels from Yabroud (the village where the nuns are being held hostage now) tried to occupy Saidnaya, but the Christians successfully protected their village. Now, Saidnaya is considered a “holy castle.” All people are afraid of a second attack and the rebels have been defeated there and are trying anything to win. After the battle, the rebels shelled the village for almost one week just to prove that they are strong.

LR: You spent many years directing the program for Iraqi refugees under the Orthodox Patriarchate’s Ecumenical Relations office. We understand that there are over one million Iraqi refugees in Greater Damascus, all displaced after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. What can you tell us about the general plight of Iraqis in Damascus?

M. Lahham: The number of Iraqi refugees has sharply decreased. We still have Iraqis – especially those Christians who escaped sectarian violence in Iraq. Their situation is also bad. They are waiting for being resettled in the United States or any European country.

LR: President Obama, multiple congressmen, and mainstream American media, have all consistently presented the U.S. position on the Syria conflict as one of desiring “democracy and freedom”… American foreign policy claims to have the best interest of Syrians at heart. What are your thoughts on this?

M. Lahham: With all due respect to American people, we do not believe in Mr. Obama’s intentions. If you live in Syria, you are able understand the whole picture. The problem is not whether we have democracy or not. This is a clash between Russia and the United States – and the battlefield is Syria. Even worse, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are also players in the game. We do believe that when the Americans and the Russians reach any possible agreement about the investment of gas and oil in the Middle East region, and especially in the coastal area, everything will be solved.

Mr. Kerry, the U.S. secretary of foreign affairs announced that Congress approved of providing the rebels with lethal weapons during Geneva II Convention. It is clearly evident that this American administration does not want to work in the interest of the Syrian people.

And I would add the following: I think the American administration is not working in the best interest of the American people as well. They work in the best interest of the “imperial businessmen” in the oil and weapons industries.

Saidnaya under rebel attack: Christian locals believe they are targets of imminent insurgent ground invasion, CNN justifies rebel assault

Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya 01

Levant Report’s own sources inside Syria were present in Saidnaya this week: they report that the townspeople are now sounding the alarm to the international community that Islamist rebels in the surrounding mountains are preparing a major invasion of the Christian city. The primary aim of the rebels, the inhabitants fear, is to commit “religious cleansing” against Christians – similar to what happened only months ago in nearby Maaloula. A reluctant international press is also beginning to acknowledge the potential for a genocidal event against Saidnayans, yet disinformation is already in full swing.

This past Thursday, February 6, monasteries and churches in the ancient Christian city of Saidnaya held special celebrations for the feast of St. Elian – a Syrian saint martyred in Homs in the third century. These celebrations took place despite the village being under constant rebel mortar attack – attacks that have been stepped up over the last month.

Saidnaya, which lies 25 minutes by car north of Damascus, and 40 minutes to the southwest of Maaloula, is (alongside Maaloula) Syria’s most celebrated and historic Christian city. Its scenic location at the edge of the Qalaman Mountains, its active churches and monasteries that go back to the time of Emperor Justinian, and multiple restaurants and resort hotels made it a favorite weekend getaway destination for Syrians and tourists of all backgrounds prior to the chaos of the last couple of years.

Saidnaya has, until recently, managed to stay quiet and relatively peaceful for most of the nearly three years of the Syria conflict. Its 5 active monasteries, dozens of churches, and large convent orphanage for girls, have continued life as usual as they have over the past many centuries living under multiple regimes – from the Byzantines to the Ottomans to the Ba’ath.

The mostly Orthodox Christian population tends to be presented as “pro-regime” in Western media reports – this perhaps because Syria’s most well-known political prison is located in Saidnaya. But the city’s Christian population believes that its very survival is dependent on the government checkpoints, tanks, and soldiers that protect it from the thousands of foreign-backed insurgents that are hunkered down in the surrounding Qalamon Mountains.

Unlike the very politically involved Maronites of Lebanon, Syria’s Christian population tends to keep a low-profile, and has enjoyed the historical toleration shown by the secular pan-Arab Ba’athists and socialist nationalist politicians that have led the country for much of Syria’s modern period.

Timothy Heckenlively, a Classics professor at a major central Texas university who has lived in the Saidnaya/Maaloula area, published a brief report in October titled “Saidnaya: another Maaloula in the making?”. After the initial successful insurgent entry into Maaloula, he expressed the following concern:

It appears that the Islamist opposition forces who wrecked [sic] 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.

Since October, insurgents have mounted multiple unsuccessful attempts to capture the mountaintop which overlooks Saidnaya – a strategic place from which they could destroy the city below. At the highest point of this mountain sits Cherubim Monastery – an active monastery and retreat center which has an important cultural heritage site: a church which dates to the third century. One of the tallest Christ statues in the world was recently erected on the monastery grounds – a towering 39 meters tall bronze sculpture that was years in planning with the help of Russian benefactors.

During the spring and summer months, Cherubim Monastery hosts Christian youth camps and church schools. The monks recently had to leave the monastery due to the frequent rebel incursions around the mountain; they are now sheltered in St. George Monastery in the village below.

In an October 2013 Christianity Today article entitled Latest Stop in Race for World’s Tallest Jesus Statue: War-Torn Syria, the reality of an ongoing religiocide in this historic Christian region was noted:

Saidnaya has recently faced sectarian attacks similar to Maaloula, another Aramaic-speaking pilgrimage destination just 15 miles north. In addition to displacing tens of thousands of people, the attacks have prompted 50,000 Syrian Christians to apply for citizenship in Russia, reports Interfax. “It is for the first time since the Nativity of Christ that we Christians of Qalamoun living in the villages of Saidnaya, Maara Saidnaya, Maaloula and Maaroun are under threat of banishment from our land,” reads the group’s appeal to the Russia Foreign Ministry.

The parallels between Maaloula and Saidnaya are all too evident: both are iconic Christian cities that have done their best to prevent conflict from entering their sleepy countryside environs; both contain Syrian cultural and UNESCO heritage sites valued by all Syrians; both have convent-run orphanages for girls and charitable centers and retreat centers; and both are overlooked by mountains from which rebels can wreak havoc and terror on a vulnerable population. Sadly, Maaloula now sits liquidated of its Christian inhabitants (some were kidnapped, some killed, and most fled to Damascus).

Our Lady of Saidnaya Convent and Orphanage is significantly larger than Maaloula’s St. Thekla Convent. It was the very first target of rebel insurgent attack on the city as it was struck by mortar fire back in January 2012. Note that in spite of current opposition and media claims that Saidnaya is primarily a government/military target, this first target of attack was a community of elderly nuns and young orphan girls.

We all know the story of Maaloula. A reluctant international press picked up on the terror attack after it was too late – and even then major outlets like the New York Times did their best to protect the reputation of the rebel insurgents involved in the takeover and brutal cleansing of the city’s Christian population. Maaloula was of no real strategic value to the rebel insurgents – their own actions in the aftermath of the assault testify to the fact that the town’s religious identity had everything to do with it.

Levant Report’s sources, which have a close affiliation with Maaloula’s St. Thekla Convent, confirm that the ancient monastery church and side chapels were stripped completely of their priceless religious icons, and other religious objects were urinated and defecated upon. Christian villagers who were caught in the midst of the rebel assault had their throats slit, or were shot execution style at close range.

According to Matthew Barber, Syria analyst and administrator of the hugely influential Syria Comment site, the Free Syrian Army and allied groups played a central role in the assault and takeover of Maaloula:

The video and photographic evidence available after the attack indicates that the operation was a coordinated effort between (at least) the following groups: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Baba ‘Amr Brigades (a rebel group possibly affiliated with the SIF – Syrian Islamic Front), FSA Commandos Unit, and Soqour al-Sham.

It is important to remember that the United States and other governments officially finance and supply weapons to some of these very groups. Though the FSA continues to be sold as “moderate” – it routinely conducts joint operations with Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups. A clear dividing line between “extreme Islamists” and the FSA is a myth sold by the United States and Western governments.

The 12 abducted Maaloulan nuns and 4 young women from the orphanage are still the objects of uncertain on-and-off hostage negotiations. Shamefully, multiple Western mainstream media outlets uncritically reported opposition claims that the nuns were actually “rescued” from Syrian Army forces as a result of the rebel takeover of Maaloula. See National Public Radio’s outrageous December 20 report – Rebel Leader: Nuns Were Led To Safety, Not Seized, In Syria:

“He decided to kill you and blame us,” he recalls pleading with the sisters, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad, after a surface-to-surface missile shattered the convent’s thick wooden door on Dec. 3…

…But Abu Majid says local rebels were protecting the women from the regime shelling on an ancient Christian town.

Similar propaganda has already begun regarding the ongoing insurgent raids on Saidnaya. In a recent January 24 CNN exclusive report from Saidnaya, the CNN correspondent declared that “Cherubim Monastery is not a civilian target these days” – this because Syrian Army tanks and soldiers are protecting the monastery and the city below. Yet the report also acknowledges that most of the fighters protecting the mountaintop and monastery are simply local Christians who desire to keep the Islamic insurgents from entering. It is unbelievable that a reporter would brazenly declare that a historic Christian monastery that housed elderly monks and was home to summer youth camps is now a legitimate military target for the opposition.

A recent PressTV report, also with camera crew on the ground in Saidnaya, bothered to include an interview with one the monks affected by the rebel shelling. Fr. Isaac Zeina, part of the monastic community that inhabited Cherubim Monastery, said in the interview “we pray to God for an end to the war.” These are hardly the words of “pro-regime militarism,” yet the CNN report branded Fr. Isaac’s monastery and home as “not a civilian target.”

Just last week, Al Monitor online news published an in-depth report on the Saidnaya assaults. The Al Monitor article is significant in that it’s currently the only instance of a major international news outlet exposing the clear the intentions of the area’s rebel insurgents:

The city rings its bells whenever danger is imminent, as was the case when mortar shells hit the Cherubim Monastery and the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya during the fourth attack [against the city] on Jan. 19. The city’s citizens are now “wanted” by armed militants.

Being from Saidnaya is enough reason to be killed by the militants who have suffered heavy defeats there, the most recent of which was the fourth attack. What’s more, the city’s people are also guilty of being nasara, a derogatory term used by armed groups to refer to Christians.

…“You will be next, after Maaloula,” recounts one of the city’s dignitaries.

The Al Monitor article also confirms that the orphans at Our Lady of Saidnaya are still in residence as rebel mortar shells continue to rain down. These girls are orphans with nowhere to go, and the convent is their home. The article further confirms that Al-Nusra Front is circulating a video declaring a genocidal war against all Christians.

Sadly, major media will on the whole continue to be silent about acts of genocide and religiocide committed by rebels in Syria. Some of the world’s most influential and visible reporters are close enough to events on the ground to know the truth, yet they continue to willfully distort, and commit acts of omission in their reporting.

Anne Barnard is perhaps the single most influential reporter when it comes to shaping American and world perceptions of the conflict in Syria. She is the Beirut bureau chief in charge of covering the Middle East for the New York Times. Anyone who knows her work can easily perceive that she consistently and almost exclusively relies on rebel opposition sources in her reporting.

Joshua Landis, widely regard as the foremost Syria expert in the U.S., tweeted a LevantReport.com article on October 8 of last year that systematically took apart Anne Barnard’s NYT reporting of the first rebel attack on Maaloula. The critique included the following:

Soon the propaganda war began. The FSA posted videos to YouTube claiming that the Assad regime was shelling churches in Maaloula and started promoting them on Twitter using various aliases. This was soon followed by a video in which a wahabi-bearded “liberator” gave a tour of the supposed damage. Their efforts soon met with the desired reward. On September 10, the New York Times ran an article by Anne Barnard giving credibility to such videos and portraying public outcry about Maaloula as potential misperception. Eight days later, Lina Sinjab of the BBC used such materials to portray the whole event as an unfortunate scuffle with few deaths and no particular damage to local churches.

The article tweeted by Landis named Barnard as a propagandist attempting to cover up the crimes of the Syrian rebels. Surprisingly, in perhaps a sarcastic or playful acknowledgement of the critique, Anne Barnard  “favorited” the article on her Twitter account. This “winking” acknowledgment from Barnard lends credibility to those who say that major media institutions such as the New York Times are willfully distorting the true and full context of the Syria conflict.

Saidnaya’s Christians, and all religious and ethnic minorities currently being targeted for genocide by the Syrian rebels need true and accurate reporting of their plight now more than ever. If real and lasting peace, the goal claimed by the Geneva Conference, is ever to be established in Syria, it must begin with a realistic assessment of not just the regime’s crimes and brutalities, but of the unambiguous intention to commit genocide on the part of the rebel opposition.

Brad Hoff served as a Marine from 2000-2004 at Headquarters Battalion, Quantico. After military service he lived, studied, and traveled throughout Syria off and on from 2004-2010. He currently teaches in Texas.

One Marine’s view: keep Syria secular, pluralistic, and free of foreign insurgents

Armenian Church of the Martyrs in Raqqa. Under rebel control, it was turned into a mosque and proselytism center, flying the black flag of Al-Qaeda (ISIS)
Armenian Church of the Martyrs in Raqqa. Under rebel control, it was turned into a mosque and proselytism center, flying the black flag of Al-Qaeda (ISIS)

Only a couple of major newspapers in the world have bothered to regularly cover the plight of Syria’s diverse religious and ethnic minorities living in rebel held areas. Lebanon’s The Daily Star and Al-Akhbar newspapers have featured consistent coverage of Syria’s Armenians, Kurds, Iraqis, Druze, Christians, and Ismailis – and the threats these communities face in opposition held parts of Syria. Read the latest Al-Akhbar coverage of two Armenian Christian business owners who dared to stay in Northern Syria, attempting to hold on to their family livelihood in a rebel controlled area. They were arrested, forced to convert, executed with bullets to the head, and denied burial.

The Syrian opposition was sold to the world by mainstream Western press from day one of the Syria conflict as representing democracy, freedom, and a pluralist future for a new Syria. But the last couple of years testify the complete opposite. Anyone who actually spent time in Syria prior to the conflict knows that Ba’athist Syria has always been unique in the region for the high degree of freedom that minorities exercise.

I’ve personally seen the very public way that Syria’s religious and ethnic minorities comfortably fit in to Syrian society. One can see crosses everywhere in nearly every Syrian urban center, or hear church services transmitted over loudspeakers in competition with the Muslim call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. The multi-colored Druze star is visible in suburbs of Damascus and all over villages in the south of the country. Any visitor to Aleppo immediately notices the very public Armenian presence with Armenian script proudly displayed in market places.

In the Hauran region, one can visit a recently erected huge government sponsored memorial to the Druze patriarch Sultan al-Atrash, who famously said, “Religion is for God, the fatherland is for all.” In the dozens of hotels around the Damascus city center, one encounters Kurdish bellhops who are proud to tell visitors of their Kurdish identity. One of the largest Christ statues in the world was recently erected over the ancient village of Saidnaya. The Orthodox monastery that sits at its base was, in the last months, the recipient of rocket attack by rebel insurgents hoping to gain control of the mountain that dominates the surrounding villages.

Speaking of Saidnaya, on one of my visits in the mid-2000’s I was shocked to see special media coverage on SANA – Syria’s national TV news station, of a reported miracle connected to the village’s 6th century Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery. A wealthy Saudi Muslim man was attacked and robbed while driving to visit the Christian monastery (revered even among area Muslims as a place of spiritual healing). The man’s throat was slit and he was stuffed into the back of his car and left to die. When the police found him, the man swore that the Virgin Mary came to him, healed his slit throat, and restored him to health there on the spot. The story made national prime time news. Perhaps the most miraculous aspect to the episode for me was the fact that the story of a miracle connected to a Christian village aired on national news in a country that was 70-75% Sunni Muslim.

This is a side of Syria only known to those who have spent a significant amount of time there. Sadly, the standard narrative of the Syria conflict has been constructed by reporters, pundits, and politicians who have hardly stepped foot inside Syria, if at all. This is why, even aside from the silly singular reliance on rebel sources for information, subtle but hugely significant mistakes are made with even the basic facts of Syrian society and history. Hugely influential outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, or CNN routinely identify the regime as “Shia-dominated” – or alternately, Assad as “pro-Shia”. From this, they construct and over-emphasize their narrative of “Shia vs. Sunni” sectarian civil war.

Anyone who knows anything about the esoteric Alawite identity and faith knows it is nothing close to Shi’ism, whatever the historical roots might be. Syria’s close relationship with Iran is, and has always been, a matter of convenience as part of a self-imagined “axis of resistance”. This has little to do with Shia religious ties and identity.

During the 2006 Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, I was walking through the Christian section of Old City Damascus. I walked past the window of a prominent Christian bakery and saw large Hezbollah cakes. The cakes featured Hezbollah’s green and yellow AK-47 and clenched fist emblem glazed in icing, as well as small images of a burning Israeli battleship. The cakes were commemorating Hezbollah’s recent successful drone attack of an Israeli warship stationed off the Lebanese coast. That a Christian baker would make and promote such a cake had nothing to do with being “pro-Shia” – but was about a shared feeling and identity of “resistance”. The idea that Assad (or his regime) is Shi’ite with a supposed pro-Shia mission is based in ignorance and disinformation.

Based on my experience living in Syria, my many contacts with Syrians inside the country and abroad, and my personal grappling with the tragedy that has befallen a beautiful country, I’ve come to one certain conclusion:

The fight in Syria is between those that want to continue Syria’s pluralistic and secular identity – those that want to ensure a high degree of personal social and religious freedoms, and those that want to erect fanatic Sunni rule along the lines of a Taliban or Saudi religious police state model. The latter, among actual Syrian nationals (as opposed to the mass flux of foreign fighters), are in the minority; and this means that the current “rebel opposition” is in reality an aggressive terrorist insurgency (and this was so much earlier than the major media pundits will ever recognize). Sadly, this insurgency is only made strong through its significant Saudi, Qatari, and NATO support and funding. I say all of this while fully acknowledging that there have been real crimes and shortcomings of the regime.

The Western pundits don’t know what to make of Assad’s continuing to stay in power – a reality contrary to their every prediction of his immediate demise sounded every few months over the past two years. Since it is they who’ve attempted to frame the narrative in purely sectarian terms, they ought to be asked: why hasn’t Damascus, with its clear majority Sunni population, thrown off the “hated” dictator?

The answer is simple. The majority of Syrians, whether Sunni, Shia, Alawi, Christian, Kurd, Ismaili, are sane individuals – they’ve seen what life is like under the “alternative”. They recognize that there is a real Syrian national identity, and it goes beyond mere loyalty to the current ruling clique that happens to be in power, but in Syria as a pluralistic Levantine society that doesn’t want to model itself on Saudi Arabia.

Brad Hoff served as a Marine from 2000-2004 at Headquarters Battalion, Quantico. After military service he lived, studied, and traveled throughout Syria off and on from 2004-2010. He currently teaches in Texas.

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