It is a longstanding tradition that St. Thecla, a follower of the apostle Paul, is buried there within the walls of a convent that bears her name. Thecla had taken a vow of chastity, and she fled to Maaloula to avoid marriage. As her pursuers approached, a cleft of rock opened on the site, permitting her to escape; and it was there that her convent was constructed.
In fact, Maaloula is one of only three places in the world where residents still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ and the apostles. The residents of the small town are mostly Melkite Greek Catholic and Orthodox Christians, but there is a minority population of Sunni Muslims. The groups have lived together in harmony—until this week.
Early on Wednesday, September 4, fighting broke out in the picturesque town as the regime in power launched a counter-attack against Islamic rebels. According to one resident, the government troops entered the main square and smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary. Shells fired from the nearby mountain struck St. Thecla convent, where the saint herself is buried.
The Telegraph reported on the ensuing battle:
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, rebel groups, a mix of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra and the more moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA), attacked with full force.
“First they took a brick factory owned by a Christian guy, who is now missing,” said the resident. “Then at around 5.30am, a car bomb detonated at the checkpoint at the entrance to the village.
“Some of the rebels entered a home near the checkpoint belonging to Yousef Haddad, a Christian. They tried to force him to convert to Islam.”
A nun living in a convent in the village told the Associated press that 27 orphans living in the convent were taken to nearby caves for shelter.
Video footage posted on YouTube showed rebel fighters on a pick up truck with an anti-aircraft gun mounted on the back firing erratically from inside the mountain town.
According to reports, the rebels have been pushed back to their base at the Safir hotel, in the mountains overlooking Maaloula. Still, Christian farmers are at risk; a Christian cannot go up there to his land unless he is accompanied by a Muslim resident of the village.
UPDATE: So just what happens when your town is overtaken by Syrian rebels associated with al Qaeda? Breitbart offers this report this morning:
…A resident of the town said the rebels shouted “Allahu Akhbar” as they moved through the village, and proceeded to assault Christian homes and churches.
“They shot and killed people,” he said. “I heard gunshots and then I saw three bodies lying in the middle of a street in the old quarters of the village. Where is President Obama to see what has befallen us?” Another witness stated, “I saw the militants grabbing five villagers and threatening them and saying, ‘Either you convert to Islam, or you will be beheaded.’”
Pray for the people of Maalooula.