On a spiritual retreat, the volunteers were able to enjoy the fresh air of Maaloula's heights for a few days, a troglodytic village built on the steep side of the Qalamoun mountains, some 60 km north of Damascus. Occupied by Al-Nosra terrorists between September 2013 and April 2014, this emblematic place of pilgrimage in the Middle East, where Aramaic is still spoken and where the Angelus rings out three times a day, is a symbol of the martyrdom experienced by Syrian Christians in recent years.
When the first cobblestones of the village square begin to vibrate under the wheels of our bus, we understand that we are finally there. Maaloula! This name sounds so sweet and melodic, but its recent notoriety conveys images of death and chaos. In the collective imagination, this village symbolizes both the historical depth of Eastern Christianity and its growing insecurity. Nevertheless, Maaloula is where we have the privilege of staying for the next three days, and all the paradoxes that this place evokes are only beginning to occupy our minds.
After a few twists and turns to reach the heights of the village, we arrive at our destination, the monastery of St. George and St. Bacchus, where our host, Father Toufik, a Greek Melkite Catholic priest, welcomes us warmly. Parish priest and head of the monastery, he is quick to show us its historical treasure, its chapel dating back to the early centuries of Christianity.
Everything in this chapel seems to contribute to making lose to you the notion of time and earthly realities: its stone vault, its freshness, the well of light that its dome majestically lets filter onto the altar, the residual odour of incense that perfumes the place... It is barely possible to dare speak in the middle of this silent mass celebrated by the elements. But Father Toufik interrupts our reveries and, approaching the iconostasis, begins to tell us about the recent looting by the fanatics of Al-Nosra during the occupation of Maaloula in 2013 and 2014. We are back on Earth. We are back in the 21st century. How could this peaceful and timeless place have experienced such an outpouring of hatred? How could world-renowned icons, nestled in an old monastery perched at an altitude of 1,400m in the Jebel Qalamoun, have been the victims of a conflict whose strategic territories were located hundreds of kilometers away? Evil had already been present in Maaloula, for years, and all it took was a spark to activate its agents.
Later in the evening, on a terrace overlooking the village's illuminated fireplaces, Father Toufik explains to us in more detail the interweaving of the "events" that struck Maaloula nearly ten years ago. As in the rest of the country, the interfaith mix lived peacefully and respectfully in Maaloula before the Syrian conflict broke out. Our host particularly insists on the common pride that united the inhabitants, that of living in the middle of a sumptuous setting and sharing a sacred language that has crossed the ages here and almost nowhere else. However, with the outbreak of the rebellion in 2011 and its gradual radicalization, the shared village and mountain identity of the Maaloulites was suddenly undermined by the political positions of everyone regarding to current events, and a climate of suspicion took hold.
On 28 February 2013, Father Toufik understood for the first time that his haven of peace was not going to escape the events in progress, when armed terrorist groups stormed the hotel adjacent to his monastery from the Al-Nosra Front and the Free Syrian Army, aided by some of the inhabitants, in retaliation for an ill-judged altercation with a local Christian. Maaloula had suddenly left its mystical timelessness and plunged into the worst that time and reality had to offer: violence, fear, destruction. If the first months following this attack were relatively calm, due to the status quo established between the attackers (confined to the occupation of the hotel) and the rest of the inhabitants (now living with their eyes riveted on the heights where their potential executioners proudly sat), everything accelerated from August onwards.
A first red line was crossed in the eyes of Father Toufik when he saw lights in his monastery, whose integrity had been respected until then. Then, on 4 September, a suicide attack by a Jordanian against the Syrian Arab Army checkpoint, located at the gates of the locality, left seventeen dead in the ranks of the latter and triggered hostilities for good.
The months following this first massacre saw countless persecutions against the Christians of the village, who were accused of supporting the Syrian Arab Army and subjected to the dilemma of conversion or death. Young teenagers were summarily executed in the village square. Twelve nuns from the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla were kidnapped, and terror settled in Maaloula until its final liberation by the Syrian Arab Army on 13 April 2014. Father Toufik remembers with emotion that day and the call he received from one of his seminarians, announcing: "Father, I am speaking to you from inside the monastery". After having looked up every evening from his refuge in the direction of the holy place and prayed for its protection, for the protection of his parishioners, he was ready to go to the heights of Maaloula to welcome once again the word of the Lord, the word that would subsequently drive out fear and give life back to thousands of wounded souls.
With our eyes fixed on the lips of our host, we listen to the end of this moving story of the hell that the inhabitants of Maaloula experienced, of which only 30% of the original population remains today, most of them have preferred exile at the risk of seeing the land they cherished become their tomb. As for these women and men who have remained or returned to Maaloula and who populate, on this evening, before our eyes the dining rooms and lit terraces of the village, who are they? We will never know them all, but we were lucky enough to meet some of them during our stay. Their testimony was a precious extension of Father Toufik's chilling story and the overview he gave us of the tragic events experienced by the village.
Despite the deaths, in spite of the painful awakening after the liberation, when we had to see the looting and destruction of countless icons and holy relics in the various occupied Christian buildings (the monastery of Saint Thecla, the monastery of Saint George and Saint Bacchus, the church of Saint George, etc.), the Maaloulites rose again. Endowed with an unshakeable faith and optimism, they are today determined to repair the evils of the past and to perpetuate their presence on this land of which they are so proud. This pride was evident in the hospitality we received throughout our brief but unforgettable stay with them.
Dorian, volunteer in Syria.