Maaloula, a predominantly Christian town and UNESCO heritage site in Syria, is under attack from Islamist rebels. Reports are coming forth stating the Islamic fighters have captured the ancient quarter.
"In this town are situated some of the most ancient churches and shrines, which are sacred for Christian believers," said the Russian Foreign Ministry
Maaloula is home to many UNESCO world heritage sites. There are very ancient shrines and monasteries located in the area and it is considered one of the birth places of Christianity. Maaloula is also one of the few places in the world where Western Aramaic is still spoken. Western Aramaic is a biblical language similar to what Jesus would have spoken.
It is being reported that the St. Thecla Convent has been taken over and the Islamists are holding captive several nuns and their mother superior. Residents are speaking out that the Islamist rebels have begun looting, executions and are forcing residents to convert to Islam. According to the state news agency, attackers committed acts of vandalism in the town's neighborhoods around the convent, attacking locals and targeting them with sniper fire.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported Monday that fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front captured the old quarter of Maaloula after several days of fierce fighting. Over the weekend militants attempted to seize the rest of the town, but were fought off by the local militia forces and Syrian soldiers. Four rebels were said to be killed in fighting in the area.
Maaloula has a population of about 5,000 and is strategically important because of its proximity to Damascus. It is also close to the strategic central highway that links the capital to Homs.
Maaloula was the scene of heavy fighting in September when it changed hands at least four times. Government forces eventually gained the upper hand.