Fear and living in Syria: Ancient Christian community rebuilds

Story highlights

  • Maaloula is one of Syria's most famous Christian enclaves
  • Many of its valuable churches and shrines were damaged when Islamist rebels took over
  • Syrian regime forces regained control in 2014

(CNN)It's one of the few places on the planet where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is spoken by the local Christian population.

At first glance, the whitewashed buildings that make up this sleepy little mountain village give the sense of a place firmly rooted in its ancient past.
    But closer inspection reveals a troubled recent history. That's because Maaloula lies barely 34 miles (55 kilometers) from Syria's capital, Damascus.
    In 2013, regime forces in the area were overrun by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front. The local population understandably feared for their lives during the fighting, while important religious buildings such as the looming Greek Catholic monastery of St. Sergius, or Mar Sarkis, were badly damaged by heavy shelling.
    Maaloula lies in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains
    Remarkably, Maaloula was spared the atrocities endured elsewhere across Syria -- the rebels even freed several nuns taken hostage as part of a prisoner exchange involving 150 women and children held by the Syrian government.
    The Syrian army eventually pushed the Islamist group out of Maaloula in April 2014 -- but some of the village's residents remain missing, feared kidnapped by the retreating jihadists.
    Today the villagers -- of all ages -- just want to move on from their recent trauma.
    "I want things to be better, like they were before," one young girl tells CNN during a religion class in the village. Another hopes those kidnapped will be freed.

    Scarred

    But danger is never far away in this war-torn country -- especially for religious minorities. The pock-marked and charred buildings are a constant reminder of this.
    A UNESCO World Heritage site, Maaloula is home to many shrines and churches -- as well as two monasteries -- considered sacred by many Christians.
    The Convent of St. Thecla
    The Convent of St. Thecla is one of the most famous buildings in the area. Thecla was a disciple of St. Paul and locals believe she hid here after fleeing Roman persecution because of her Christian faith.
    The convent was badly damaged during fighting in 2013 and 12 nuns were taken hostage and held by Islamist fighters for months before they were released unharmed.
    Locals said militants attempted to burn the inside of the tomb where St. Thecla is said to be buried. People from the village continue to visit the site to light candles and pray. They hope the United Nations Development program will help them to rebuild ancient sites like this.
    The tomb of St. Thecla
    The ceiling of the newer Church of the Convent of St. Thecla was also blackened by the fire that raged here. However, the murals are still mostly intact. The church is currently not in use as the community is waiting for restoration work to begin.

    Ceiling in the burned out church in the Convent of St Tecla in Christian town of Maaloula #syria #cnn

    A photo posted by Fred Pleitgen (@fpleitgencnn) on

    The destruction of valuable religious icons and artifacts in Syria is an all too familiar theme. Only recently did Syrian forces backed by Russian airstrikes recapture Palmyra from ISIS, months after the ancient city fell to the Islamic extremist group, state media reported.
    Soon after taking control, ISIS militants began demolishing ancient ruins considered to be among the world's most treasured. This destruction included the 1,800-year-old Arch of Triumph and the nearly 2,000-year-old Temple of Baalshamin. ISIS also beheaded the antiquities expert who looked after the ruins.
    ISIS considers these ancient artifacts un-Islamic and ripe for destruction.