Jihadists who overran Syria’s ancient town of Maalula last week disparaged Christians as “Crusaders” and forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint, say residents who fled the town.
Many of Maalula’s people left after a first rebel assault knocked out an army checkpoint at the entrance to the strategic town on September 4. Some went to a nearby village and others to Damascus, about 55 kilometres (34 miles) to the south.
One of them, Marie, was still frightened as she spoke of that day.
“They arrived in our town at dawn… and shouted ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,” an Islamist term for Christians, Marie said in Damascus, where she and hundreds of others attended the burial Tuesday of three Christian pro-regime militiamen killed in the fighting.
Maalula is one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria, and many of its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Home to around 5,000 people, it is strategically important for rebels, who are trying to tighten their grip around the capital.
It could also be used as a launching point for attacks on the highway between the capital and Homs, a key regime supply route.
The rebels have been in and out of the town since the first assault as they battle with government troops and militia.
On Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and residents said rebels, including jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda, had overrun Maalula.
But on Tuesday night, the Free Syrian Army said rebels would withdraw to spare the town’s people and heritage, on the condition that the regime kept its forces out as well.
However, they were still in the town on Wednesday, a Syrian security source said.
“The army has not yet retaken Maalula. The battles are raging on, but (the army) is making progress,” the source said on condition of anonymity.
Some rebel groups have accused the army of having deliberately pulled out of the town in the fighting, leaving it open to jihadist capture, as a propaganda ploy to gain sympathy for the Christians there.
A nun from the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox convent in Maalula told AFP by telephone that “there were fierce battles (on Tuesday) but the town was not shelled. We and the orphans we take care of are doing well, but we lack fuel.”
Recalling the events of last week, 62-year-old Adnan Nasrallah said an explosion destroyed an archway just across from his house that leads into the town.
“I saw people wearing Al-Nusra headbands who started shooting at crosses,” said Nasrallah, a Christian.
One of them “put a pistol to the head of my neighbour and forced him to convert to Islam by obliging him to repeat ‘there is no God but God’.”
“Afterwards they joked, ‘he’s one of ours now’.”
Nasrallah spent 42 years running a restaurant — which he named Maalula — in the US state of Washington and returned to Syria just before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad broke out in March 2011.
“I had a great dream. I came back to my country to promote tourism. I built a guesthouse and spent $2,000 installing a windmill to provide electricity in the town.
“My dream has gone up in smoke. Forty-two years of work for nothing,” he lamented.
But worse, for him, was what he said was the reaction of his Muslim neighbours when the town was seized by the rebels.
“Women came out on their balconies shouting with joy, and children… did the same. I discovered that our friendship was superficial.”
But Nasrallah’s sister, Antoinette, refused to condemn everyone, saying recent arrivals in the town were to blame.
“There are refugees from Harasta and Douma (in the suburbs of Damascus) that we have taken in, and they are spreading the poison of hatred, especially among the younger generation,” she said.
Another resident, Rasha, recounted how the jihadists had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town’s militia, and brutally murdered him.
“I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.
“Good morning, Rashrush,” a voice answered, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”
The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.
“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.