A Forgotten People".
The Twice Betrayed Christians of Ma' loula
The Monastery of St. Thekla, Ma'loula, Syria
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It is a truly unique cultural heritage site, the hamlet of Ma'aloula, with Christian sanctuaries and monuments stretching back for more than 16 centuries into the past, yet it has been scarred, traumatized, desecrated and deeply wounded by the war in Syria.
Situated some 40 miles northeast of Damascus, Ma'loula is one of the few places in the world where Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ, is still spoken, but its Christian inhabitants feel they have been betrayed, not once but twice in the past year.
The first betrayal came from some of their Muslim neighbors who have shared the hamlet as good neighbors for 14 centuries. Until now, only ten percent of the pre-conflict population of approximately 4,000 (approximately 3,200 Christians and 600 Sunni Muslims) have dared to return, and there is little potable water and not much electricity. Many of the Christians, mainly Antiochian Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholics, fled to the Christian quarter of the Bab Touma neighborhood in the Old City of Damascus, and most remain there. Syrian forces retook the area on 4/13/14, four months after al-Nusra and other Islamist rebels overran it. This was after the jihadists had kidnapped 13 Ma'loula nuns and three maids on December 3, transporting them to the nearby town of Yabrud, until their release was negotiated and they were freed last March.
In May of this year, a couple of days after the liberation of Homs, this observer visited the Um al-Zennar Church, also known as the "Church of the Holy Belt," located in the Old City. What he witnessed and photographed at the time was the immediate aftermath of a rampage of desecration that had been inflicted on the church. This included the smashing of the altar and pews, the gouging out of the eyes of religious icons, the smashing of religious statues and destruction of paintings of saints, including Mary the mother of Jesus. Other damage included the burning of the nave and sanctuary as well as a still smoldering pile of bibles and religious documents in the courtyard. It was the worst desecration of a place of reverence and worship I had ever seen--until I came to Ma'loula.
The churches and monasteries here had attracted both Christian and Muslim pilgrims before the conflict. The monastery of Mar Thecla in fact has a reputation among believers for miraculous cures. This observer and his companion were given drops of holy water to splash in our eyes for good health and happiness. One can also drink water from the crack in the massive rock cliff that St. Thecla was said to have parted while fleeing the wrath of her family for turning from paganism to Christianity. Some religious scholars claim, and indeed a legend in the early church has it, that Thecla was a chaste and devoted follower of St. Paul. In any event, townspeople claim the water, which flows from the huge split rock, offers a cure for a variety of ailments.
Syrian Tourism Minister Bachir Yazigi has reported that damage and theft to antiquities in Syria, including during the fighting in Ma'loula has amounted to "billions of Syrian pounds" in losses. Included in his calculations are the following examples:
*Many of the old town houses and alleys have been destroyed. Roofs and walls of houses built of stone, in some cases three stories high have collapsed.
*A large number of caves and archaeological cemeteries have been vandalized, sabotaged, and drilled, their doors-smashed and turned into fortified barricades. One of the most damaged caves was on the site of Mar Sarkis, or the Monastery of St. Sergius and Bacchus;
The The Monastery of St. Thecla, including her tomb, has been completely burned, and its holy relics and icons looted, some already surfacing for illicit sale;
One lady from Ma'loula, now living in Damascus, explained to this observer how al-Nusra militants handed citizens "certificates of death" and threatened to harm women and children should the men fail to comply with whatever orders were given to them. She recalled how Christians were told to pay tributes to al-Nusra in order to stay alive.
Al-Nusra militants by the way are being identified as some of the most active dealers of black market antiques of the Middle East. Lebanese media have reported that a great number of ancient icons, crosses, reliquaries, and statues have been smuggled from Syria into Lebanon and then sent abroad. Local smugglers are said by INTERPOL to be moving hundreds of Ma'loula's antiquities, transporting Christian antiquities to European countries, with the main destinations being Italy and Turkey.