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Monday, September 16, 2013

Orthodox Christian Leader Decries Syrian Rebel Attacks Near Monasteries

View of Saint Thecla (Mar Takla) monastery, in Maaloula, Syria. (Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

View of Saint Thecla (Mar Takla) monastery, in Maaloula, Syria. (Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons)

Syrian military forces continue to battle Islamic rebels near the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, Syria, where some residents still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

Most Maaloula residents have fled, but nuns and orphans remain holed up in Mar Tekla, one of the town’s two early Christian monasteries.

They are members of the eastern orthodox Church of Antioch. Its leader in the U.S., Metropolitan Philip Saliba, is concerned about their safety.

Philip is a strong supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He joined church leaders in calling for a special “Day of Solidarity” in churches yesterday, with a special collection made for victims in Syria “who are suffering so terribly.”




It's HERE AND NOW, and before the break we heard about a report from the U.N. today in which inspectors concluded that there is clear and convincing evidence that chemical weapons were used against civilians on a large scale in Syria last month. Meanwhile, the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic group the Al-Nusra Front is claiming responsibility for killing at least 30 members of President Assad's minority Alawite sect during an attack on three villages in central Syria this last week. And Syrian military forces continue to battle rebels near the ancient Christian town of Ma'loula.

Now that is home to some of the oldest Christian sites in Syria, including a convent where nuns and orphans remain holed up, refusing to leave as fighting rages around the city. They are members of the Eastern Orthodox Church of Antioch, and their leader here in the U.S., Archbishop Philip Saliba, is concerned about them. He joins us on the line from his office in Englewood, New Jersey, Archbishop Saliba, tell us more about your fears.

ARCHBISHOP PHILIP SALIBA: My concern is about St. Thecla's Convent and other holy places in Syria, which are threatened. The people of Ma'loula still speak the language of Christ, the Aramaic language, and this is the uniqueness of this town, and we are worried about its destruction. Already 400 families have left from Ma'loula. They fled to Damascus.

YOUNG: Can you describe it more? Describe the sites that are there.

SALIBA: Well, the sites, they are caves, you know, in the rocks. It's a mountain full of ancient archeological sites like St. Thecla and Sarkis.

YOUNG: So the monastery and the convent there are carved into the mountain?

SALIBA: Yes, yes.

YOUNG: And we understand the sites have been there for 2,000 years.

SALIBA: Yes, 2,000 years because Christianity starts in Palestine and in Syria.

YOUNG: So as you said, most of the families, over 400, have fled the city. But the nuns are still there. What are they doing?

SALIBA: The nuns are taking care of a group of orphans, and they refuse to leave the convent. They say we're still - we are ready to die and not leave these orphans behind.

YOUNG: Yeah.Well, I know you've spoken to I think a mother superior at the convent. What are you hearing?

SALIBA: When I spoke to the mother superior, she was surrounded by the rebels. She could not speak very freely. She said oh, oh, we are OK, we are OK, we - everything is all right, and that was not the case. I understood later on that one of the rebels knocked on the door of the convent, and the nuns said who is it, and he wouldn't answer.

He told them to open the door otherwise I will put a bomb underneath the door and walk in. So they opened the door.

YOUNG: Well, when you say rebels, we know that there are a variety of rebels in Syria. Some are nationalists. Some are Syrians. At the beginning of the uprising...

SALIBA: I'm not concerned with the Syrian rebels. I'm concerned with the foreigners, the mercenaries who came to Syria from Chechnya, from Turkey, from Saudi Arabia, from Libya, from Tunisia. So I am concerned about al-Qaida and Al-Nusra. They are sister organizations.

YOUNG: So it's not the Syrian rebels who are part of the nationalist movement that wanted to overthrow President Assad initially, it's the rebels that have come in since, and many are from Islamist groups like the ones you've named. What would you like to see happen?

SALIBA: I would like to see a conference, an international conference, to bring the opposition in Syria. We have some Syrian rebels, too, but they are not that vicious like al-Qaida.

YOUNG: Look, your church and church members have been supporters of President Assad. His ruling regime is also in the minority in Syria. You felt protected by Assad in the past. You say you'd like to see a conference. Are you at all encouraged by the international conversation that's going on? You were against the strikes because maybe they would strike more than just the weapons of mass destruction.

Now the conversation is about Syria giving up all of its chemical weapons. And who knows with the spotlight on that and with Russia involved, you know, maybe there will be a lessening of the civil war there. What is your hope with the ongoing conversation?

SALIBA: My hope is that the regime stays. The alternative is to have al-Qaida, al-Qaida that destroyed our Twin Towers in New York City and attacked the Pentagon and exploded a plane over Pennsylvania. They have been fighting us all over. They hate us as Americans. They hate the Christians. They have - they call us blasphemers, you know.

YOUNG: So it sounds like you have no sympathy for the original uprising against Assad by the majority of Syrians who, while you and the Christians felt protected by him, they did not.

SALIBA: Robin, the original rebels were Syrians.

YOUNG: Right.

SALIBA: Al-Qaida came later on, and Al-Nusra came later on. But the original rebels are good people. I would call them the real, genuine opposition. They were asking for something genuine. They want more democracy. They want more freedom. Some of them are still in Damascus, and they are talking to the government. They are very good people. I'm not saying that the original revolution was composed of al-Qaida and Al-Nusra, you see.

YOUNG: But now obviously you feel it's a different, it's a different battle.

SALIBA: Yes, it's very, very different, and I hope that we will not surrender Syria to such people because if we do, then there will be no more Christians in that country.

YOUNG: Archbishop Philip Saliba, primate of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America, thank you so much.

SALIBA: OK, Robin, thank you.


Well, now an update on the shooting in Washington's Navy Yard. According to the Associated Press, Navy officials are saying that at least six people have died. Washington, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier held a press conference where she said one suspect is dead, but there may have been others.

CHIEF CATHY LANIER: The big concern for us right now is that we potentially have two other shooters that we have not located at this point.

CHAKRABARTI: And Lanier said that one suspect is a white male wearing a khaki military uniform with a beret, and the other suspect was a black male, approximately 50 years old, wearing an olive-colored, possibly military-style uniform. We have no information to believe, she said, that either are military personnel, but they are wearing military-style uniforms. Lanier also said that anyone with additional information should call the Metropolitan Police Department.

We'll continue to update this story as more information becomes available. News is next, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • Mr.Syrian

    Yeh Robin, let us repeat Assad propaganda about Islamic rebels attacking Maaloula because we all know that a regime (gang) that has massacred more than 100,000, 400 children in the last chemical attack alone have credibility to say anything and will believe specially those that support this world criminal. We should ask them who attacked Maaloula, I am sure they will tell the truth, pathetic and disgusting. For someone like me, a Syrian with no affiliation whatsoever, When I listen to your show, I cannot think of anything other than your hatred towards the Syrian people and their fight for freedom, but you feel ashamed to say it loudly, I SUPPORT THE CREMINAL ASSAD

    • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

      What would Assad have to gain by attacking a Christian monastery occupied by nuns and orphans?

      What would al-Nusra have to gain by attacking that monastery?

      What forensic evidence has been gathered by neutral UN forensic teams to identify the source of the attacks?

      • Mr.Syrian

        What would Assad have to gain by attacking a Christian monastery occupied by nuns and orphans?

        This story by Robin is one example of what Assad would gain, linking the revolution to Islamic extremism, this was his goal from the beginning of the revolution, a scare tactic to warn the west that if you side with the Syrian people you are helping AlQaida, and this has been repeated thousands of times on the web by the Syrian (Assad) Electronic Army, the thing that most of the people do not realize is that if there are extremist in Syria, they would be most definitely working for the Assad regime, have we forgot the Iraq war and how many times the US warned the Assad regime about sending extremist to fight US troops, and this fact is known by every Syria citizen

        • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

          Are you suggesting this was a “false flag” attack by Assad’s forces, hoping to pin the blame on the al-Nusra rebels?

          If that is your hypothesis, what forensic evidence do you rely on to support your working hypothesis and to falsify all other hypotheses?

          • Ahiqar The Assyrian

            No disrespect Mr. Syrian but I believe you have an agenda and are a victim of the Arabist misinformation. Regardless of how terrible Assad is, it’s a fact that the Christian (Assyrian Syriac) minority of syria, which are the original inhabitants of Syria, were treated the best, in the Arab middle east countries. It is also a fact, you can read history books dating back to the time of Jengis Khan, the ottoman empire, that the goal of the Islamist in the whole Middle East has been to exterminate the Christians in the whole Middle East, to start their dream of reviving the Caliphate once more.

          • realpolitik

            There is substantial independent evidence that this was a false flag attack. Look at the Stratfor website (private intelligence service in the US) or Fabius Maximus (ties to the national security apparatus) or Arms Control Wonk (ties to the national security apparatus) that links to a variety of informed sites that comment on the chemical weapons incident. It should be noted that the UN report itself does not disclose its testing methods for identifying specific agents, does not comment on the variety of symptoms reported (MSF reports symptoms that differ from those in the UN report and are not compatible with a neurotoxic agent). Further, the artillery shells supposedly utilized are not Syrian Army but have been found at rebel sites.

          • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

            Are there any forensic scientists who openly operate in a non-corporate, non-partisan, non-political mode of academic research, and who:

            1) scrupulously adhere to the protocols of the scientific method;

            2) submit their data and methods of analyses to scientific peer review;

            3) openly publish their data, analysis, and findings in well-respected scientific journals?

      • Mr.Syrian

        What would al-Nusra have to gain by attacking that monastery?

        Nothing absolutely nothing. Just notice the timing in which attacks against Christian neighborhoods have happened, it is always when there are talks about arming the rebels be the west or the US or lately attacking Assad by the US

        • http://profiles.google.com/barry.kort Barry Kort

          I am unclear on the method of reasoning you are relying on to draw your conclusion.

    • http://quintuscurtius.com/ Quintus Curtius

      You will do anything to avoid talking about the crimes and atrocities of these foreign “rebels”. It is not propaganda that these foreign jihadis are composed of rootless extremists from various countries in the region. They are being bought, paid for, armed, and egged on by the US, Israel, and other traitor regimes that do their bidding: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Turkey. They are religious bigots and hate anyone who is not a fundamentalist Wahhabi.
      They want to kill or convert all Christians and Shi’ite sects. Are you going to deny this?
      Why don’t you want to talk about that, Mr. Syrian? Or are you even Syrian?
      No, you don’t want to talk about that truth.
      No one is saying Assad is a great leader, but the country doesn’t deserve to be torn apart by religious fanatics. You’re OK with that, I guess.
      I suppose it’s also just “propaganda” that Islamist fanatics are burning churches and killing Christians in Egypt. Are you going to deny that, too, Mr. Syrian?
      You’re so blinded by your hate of Assad that you will accept any “help” from the US imperialists to overthrow him.
      You’ve learned nothing from the past 40 years of Middle East history. Those who accept money and help from the US and Israel will be their slaves.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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