Ancient Christian City in Syria ‘Rising Again’

MAALOULA, Syria – Rape, beheadings and destruction. ISIS and other radical Islamists are committing genocide against Christians in the Middle East.

Yet miraculously, the people of one of the world’s oldest Christian cities have survived. CBN News found that preserving the town’s Christian heritage came with a heavy cost.

Maaloula is an ancient Christian city where the people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Located 35 miles northeast of the Syrian capital city of Damascus, Islamic terrorists overran and occupied Maaloula in September 2013.

Because of its ancient history, Maaloula has become a symbol of Christianity. That’s why Islamic extremists wanted to dominate it because it is this symbol for all of Syria. And that’s why it was important for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to regain control of the city.

The Syrian army fought aggressively and liberated Maaloula eight months after the terrorists seized control. But the town had already suffered much hardship and destruction.

Jihadists left St. George’s Church in Maaoula largely intact, but they did their damage to the interior, including some of the church’s ancient icons.

Terrorists tried to erase the city’s Christian heritage by shooting up the icons. They used knives to desecrate a depiction of the Last Supper. They knocked down a statue of Jesus and broke it into pieces.

And the terror inflicted on human lives proved even more devastating.

“They came here to convert the Christians to Islam, and they wanted to destroy Maaloula because it is Christian,” Maryam El Zakhm told CBN News. “They shouted ‘Allahu Akbar!’ They were from Chechneya, Egypt, Libya, from everywhere – Tunis, Algeria. They came with long hair, long beards and scary faces.”

She was at home when Islamic jihadists armed with automatic weapons and grenades approached her doorstep.

“They attacked my house and started screaming ‘come out you Christian pigs!’ I knew they planned to take our daughters, rape and kill them,” she recalled. “So, I thought of killing my daughters and then myself before they could get to us. I then prayed to God instead and asked Him to give us a chance to leave the house.”

She and her family escaped out a back door just moments before the terrorists stormed their home.

Father Toufic Eid is the parish priest of St. George’s Greek Melkite Catholic Church.

“We had a lot of fear, in fact, at that time and people began to leave Maaloula,” he told CBN News. “In fact, six men were kidnapped. We still do not know their fate.”

They also kidnapped 15 nuns and kept them captive three months before they were freed in a prisoner exchange. Other Christians, however, were not so fortunate.

Maryam’s nephew, Sarkis, and two other men hid in the cellar of a house. The jihadists called out to them, pledging they would not be harmed if they surrendered.

“When they refused to convert to Islam, they were killed – three of them,” she explained.

In a show of support for the Christians of Maaloula, President Assad toured the town in April 2014. He walked through the rubble of damaged homes, monasteries and church buildings. He pledged to help restore Maaloula to its ancient beauty.

“So the government felt it was important to care for the Christians and show they are caring for the Christians?” CBN News asked Father Toufic.

“Of course, of course – not only because they are Christians but because Maaloula became in the past a symbol – a symbol of the Christianity itself and a symbol of living together between Christians and Muslims. That’s why Maaloula was important and that’s why it was attacked,” Toufic explained.

Restoration efforts continue at Saint Sarkis Monastery. It’s one of the oldest monasteries in all of Christendom. It was heavily damaged by the terrorists, but today it is mostly restored.

The monastery chapel remains intact. Built in the 4th century on the ruins of a pagan temple, it predates the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.

Missing today are 16th and 18th century icons that once adorned the chapel walls. The jihadists may have either sold or destroyed them.

And Maryam says the terrorists could have easily massacred Maaloula’s Christians, but God intervened.

“I believe prayer had an effect. By your prayers, we were protected,” she said.

While many buildings have been restored, it will take longer for the people to rebuild their lives.

“My daughter has nightmares and screams in the middle of the night, ‘they’re coming to kill us!” said Maryam.

While Father Toufic remains optimistic, he knows the Christians of Maaloula still face many challenges as fighting continues in their country.

“We are rising again. We are rising again…This is a step of faith in fact. To have hope. Pray for us to have more hope, more hope because the difficulties are so much in fact,” he said.

Maryam also requested prayer from Christians worldwide.

“Pray that God will not only restore peace to Maaloula, but to all of Syria,” she said.

Source: CBN News