Syria’s president marked Easter with a tour Sunday of an ancient Christian village recently recaptured by his forces, state media said, as the country’s Greek Orthodox Patriarch vowed that country’s Christians “will not submit and yield” to extremists.
Syrian state TV and the country’s official SANA news agency said President Bashar Assad visited the hilltop hamlet of Maaloula, inspecting the damage done in recent fighting to its monasteries and churches.
Rebels, including fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, seized Maaloula several times late last year, most recently in December. Government troops swept through the village on Monday, sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills.
Maaloula is located some 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus and is home to a large Christian population. The army’s triumph in the village was an important symbolic prize for the government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities, including Syria’s Christians, who have largely supported the Assad family’s decades of rule.
During his visit to the village Sunday, Assad promised to defend Christians — who make up about 10 percent of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million — and protect churches that he said were part of the country’s cultural heritage.
“Nobody, regardless of the extent of their terror, can erase our cultural and human history,” the state news agency quoted Assad as saying as he surveyed damage to the Mar Takla Greek Orthodox monastery. Despite damage to holy sites in the village, Assad told state TV that “Maloula will remain steadfast in the face of barbarism of all those who are targeting the homeland.”