I’m grateful to The New York Times for highlighting the Syrian rebel attack on the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. From the NYT’s report:
Some of the rebels, apparently aware of their public relations problem, said in interviews that they meant Christians no harm. They filmed themselves talking politely with nuns, instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches and touring a monastery that appeared mostly intact. They said they had withdrawn from most of the town, posted videos of shelling there by Mr. Assad’s forces and argued that the government had given the fight a sectarian cast by sending Christian militiamen from Damascus to join in.
But the damage was already done. Most of the town’s residents have fled, and Maaloula, one of the last places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus,is still spoken by Christians and some Muslims, has become a one-word argument against Western support for the rebels — at the worst possible time for Mr. Obama and the opponents of Mr. Assad.
Syrian-Americans lobbying against the proposed American missile strike flooded Congressional message boards with appeals for Maaloula. A common refrain was that Mr. Obama was throwing Syria’s Christians “to the lions.”
It was a powerful accusation in a region where a decade of unrest and rising sectarianism, from Iraq to Egypt, has threatened and displaced large sectors of the Middle East’s Christians, a population that had already shrunk significantly through emigration over the past century.
Read the whole thing. Note this, from the abbess of a Maaloula monastery and orphanage:
“If Maaloula survives, it will be a miracle,” Mother Sayaf said. “Maaloula is empty. You see ghosts on the walls.”
Why are the rebels targeting Maaloula, a town where Muslims and Christians have lived peaceably for generations, and a town where even Muslims go to pray at the monastery? There is no obvious strategic reason for the little village to suffer rebel assault. For one, the NYT article points out that the rebel faction leading the assault on Maaloula is foreign. For another, a knowledgeable Orthodox Christian source tells me that it’s well known locally that President and Mrs. Assad come to Maaloula every Pascha to spend time with the orphans.
Whatever. The Times is right that the assault on Maaloula has awakened some American Christians to the cause the United States is supporting in Syria. If the US throws Tomahawks at Syria, they may as well drop one on Maaloula too, because a rebel victory over Assad will almost certainly mean the death of Maaloula. If the Free Syrian Army cannot protect Maaloula from the hardcore jihadists in their own coalition now, they won’t have a chance at all to do so in the event of a rebel victory. From Bloomberg:
Christians “are right in their fears because under the present order, it was authoritarian but it was secular,” said Kamran Bokhari, vice-president for Middle Eastern affairs at the Austin, Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor. “We’re moving away from the order that we know to the unknown. The best we know about the unknown is that it will be dominated by a litany of forces that are radical Islamists.”