The Al-Nusra Front, designated by the State Department as a terrorist militia, has captured the historic Christian town of Maaloula from government forces.
Videos posted on YouTube in recent days showed fighting between rebels and government forces in the tiny sleepy town, an hour’s drive from the capital Damascus.
“We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs,” a rebel commander shouts at the camera in a video posted online over the weekend.
What the capture will mean for the Christian residents waits to be seen.
As the 18-month-long Syrian conflict festers, the government and the opposition welcome and need Christian support.
But some Christians fear radical Islamists have been swelling rebel ranks.
They also fear the same fate as a number of Christians during the war in Iraq, where militants targeted them and spurred many to leave the country.
Christians make up roughly 10% of the population. Syria is ruled by a government dominated by Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiism. The regime is opposed by an opposition with a large Sunni presence.
Aid agencies say Syria’s 2 million Christians are often targeted for suspected sympathies to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Two top bishops have been kidnapped; a well-known priest is missing.
Antoinette Nassrallah, the Christian owner of a cafe in Maaloula, told CNN last year she had seen government TV images depicting radical Muslim attacks on Christians. She said she has heard about such violence in Aleppo.
“For now in our area here it’s fine,” she said last year. “But what I heard, in Aleppo, they are killing, destroying many of churches — very, very old churches.”
Many of Syria’s Christians have fled to Lebanon where they shelter in monasteries.
On Saturday, they joined in prayers for peace promoted by Pope Francis in Rome.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on leaders of al-Nusra while the State Department blacklisted it as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.
Al-Nusra has been among Isalmist rebel groups who have targeted Christians in Syria. National Review’s Nina Shea reported on some of the attacks in an article from July 1:
Some other examples of Syrian Christians, from various faith traditions, who have been kidnapped and killed or never seen again include:.
27-year-old Father Michael Kayal of the Armenian Catholic Church in Aleppo was abducted in February while riding a bus after Islamists spotted his clerical garb. He has not been seen since.
Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz was kidnapped around the same time and has not reappeared.
Syrian Orthodox parish priest Father Fadi Haddad was kidnapped last December after he left his church in the town of Qatana to negotiate the release of one of his kidnapped parishioners. A week later, Fr. Haddad’s mutilated corpse was found by the roadside, with his eyes gouged out.
Yohannes A. (whose last name has been redacted by Fides protect his family) was summarily executed. An Islamist gunman stopped the bus to Aleppo and checked the background of each passenger. When the gunman noticed Yohannes’ last name was Armenian, they singled him out for a search. After finding a cross around his neck, one of the terrorists shot point blank at the cross, tearing open the man’s chest.
A woman from Hassake recounted in December to Swedish journalist Nuri Kino how her husband and son were shot in the head by Islamists. “Our only crime is being Christians,” she answers, when asked if there had been a dispute.
18-year-old Gabriel fled with his family from Hassake after his father was shot for having a crucifix hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror. The son told Kino: “After the funeral, the threats against our family and other Christians increased. The terrorists called us and said that it was time to disappear; we had that choice, or we would be killed.”
This sectarian cleansing campaign has the dual purpose of ridding the country of a hated minority, and weakening support for President Assad. As the opposition has become more radicalized, and dominated by al-Qaeda and its terrorist affiliates, Christians have found themselves being forced into turning to the Assad regime out of sheer self-preservation.
While there may be little our government can do on the ground in Syria to protect Christians, they can speak out and condemn the atrocities and barbarity being perpetrated by Islamist rebels. This, they are not doing.
But this shouldn’t surprise us. Even with tens of thousands of our troops in Iraq, the war against Christians was carried out and prosecuted with enthusiasm by both Sunnis and Shias. Churches — including historic structures dating back hundreds of years — were torched, priests murdered, and ordinary Christians threatened and harassed.
It was worse in Egypt as the Copts endured dozens of attacks on the faithful and their faith. And now its the turn of Christians in Syria, among the region’s most ancient believers. All over the Middle East, there has been a mass migration of Christians who are leaving their homelands for safer climes.
A great and bloody tragedy is unfolding right before our eyes. And the Western world, whose origins are intimately connected with the Christian faith, is remaining largely silent in the face of this persecution.