It’s hard to get a grip on what’s happening in Syria. And the complexity deepens when you factor in the fate of the country’s Christians.
Last week, Bashir Assad’s forces re-took Maalula, 35 miles from Damascus, from rebels who had captured it seven months ago. The development was regarded as a set-back by the Western powers, who are demanding the ousting of Assad. But Syrian Christians saw it as an answer to prayers.
Alongside the Syrian army were fighters from the Lebanese resistance movement Hizbollah.
Maalula is one of the oldest Christian settlements on earth. Its 6,000 people are mainly Greek Orthodox, with a minority of Catholics. It is the only town in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken in the street. Or at least was until engulfed in the war.
Peter Oborne in the Daily Telegraph, described Christians emerging after Assad’s victory to examine the ruins of the monastery of St Sergius, named after a Roman soldier martyred in the fourth century for refusing to renounce his Christian faith: “Inside what had long been seen as a symbol of Syria’s religious freedom, broken icons lay on the ground alongside crosses, catechisms, and images of the Virgin Mary.”
Osborne quoted a soldier, Samir, saying that the ancient religious site “will not change hands again because most of the young men in the village have joined the military”. Joined Assad, that is.
Another, Imad, said: “I can’t describe my feelings because the terrorists are destroying the Christian religion.” He was referring to the jihadists who have emerged as the strongest element within the rebel movement favoured by the West.
In the library of the monastery, Oborne came across a message left by a pilgrim. “This is a very beautiful place to visit and also very inspirational to know that Christians have existed in this area continuously for so many years. May the work here in God’s name continue and help to bring peace and understanding to all people in the Middle East and the world, regardless of who or by what means they choose to worship God.”
The fact that Hizbollah, defined by the US and EU as an Islamic terrorist organisation, is seen by the Christians of Maalula as helping to defend their monasteries and churches against jihadists, says something about the way truth in Syria has become hopelessly tangled and twisted.
The morality tale told on the news - Assad bad, rebels good - is at best inadequate, at worst a lie.