Jihadists Force Syria Christian to 'Convert at Gunpoint'

Tuesday, 10 Sep 2013 04:16 PM

 

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Jihadists who overran Syria's ancient Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one, residents said Tuesday.

"They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted 'We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders," an Islamist term for Christians, said a still frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.

She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial with hundreds of others of three Christians from Maalula killed in last week's fighting, the long line of mourners led by a brass band playing dirges.

"Maalula is the wound of Christ," mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the capital's ancient Christian quarter, their voices nearly drowned out by the rattle of automatic gunfire in honor of the dead.

There was an irony in that, as the assault on Maalula came only a couple of weeks before a major feast, the Exaltation of the Cross.

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Maalula, around 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Damascus, is one of the most renowned Christians 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 and already have bases south and west of Damascus.

Maalula could also be used as a launching point for attacks on the highway between the capital and Homs, a key regime supply route.

Clashes first erupted on Wednesday, when Al-Nusra Front fighters and other Islamists attacked an army checkpoint at one entrance to the town.

The advance raised fears of attacks on churches or Christians in the town, but on Friday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition said rebels had withdrawn.

On Saturday, the Observatory said rebels were fighting pro-regime militias in western Maalula, and were also clashing with Syrian troops on its outskirts.

Tuesday night, the Free Syrian Army said rebels had withdrawn from Maalula to spare its people and heritage, but only on the condition that the regime kept its forces out as well.

Recalling the events last Wednesday, 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.

One of them "put a pistol to the head of my neighbor 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, who spent 42 years running a restaurant in the US state of Washington named after his hometown, said he was devastated by what happened in Maalula.

"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 neighbors 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.

"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.

The most tragic story was that of Rasha, who 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, Rash rush," the voice said, 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.

Urgent: Should U.S. Strike Syria? Vote Here

© AFP 2014

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