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patrick martin

Jesus may have just become a factor in Syria's civil war.

Early Wednesday morning, forces from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist group known as the al-Nusra Front stormed the Syrian military outpost that protected the historic Christian village of Maalula, about 55 km north of Damascus. The soldiers – eight of them were reportedly killed – had guarded the only road into this secluded, predominantly Christian community. Throughout the day, residents of the village reported that their defenceless community had come under fire from the rebel jihadists with shells hitting the town centre and threatening the village's five churches, a monastery and a convent.

Syria's Christians, who number about 2.5 million, have mostly supported President Bashar al-Assad in the country's 30-month-old civil war – not out of love for what the Assad regime has done to end the initially peaceful protests, but out of fear of what might happen to Christians should an extreme Islamist force be victorious. Nowhere is that fear stronger than in Maalula, and nowhere are the consequences greater should the villagers and the area's historic sites be harmed.

Nestled in a mountain pass, Maalula is one of the few places on Earth in which Western Aramaic – the language of Jesus Christ – is predominantly spoken. Fewer than 20,000 people still speak this Semitic tongue that sounds a bit like Hebrew; the largest group of them are in Maalula (Aramaic for "entrance") and two smaller, nearby communities.

Maalula, with a population of about 2,000, has been a symbol of Christianity in Syria for more than 1700 years. Its environs are full of troglodyte caves dating back to the first centuries of Christianity, and its churches and other religious buildings date back to the early 4th century.

The Monastery of St. Serge atop the village was built around 320 AD. Its church, into which one stoops to enter through a small door, utilizes the altars used by Romans for pagan sacrifices in the temple that first stood on the site.

Made of marble, the semi-circular altars are sculpted to form a 7-centimeter vertical lip designed to keep the blood of sacrifices from spilling over. They are believed to be the only ones of their kind in any Christian church.

Twenty years ago, I attended a wedding in this chapel celebrated by two Canadian embassy staff members. It was a rare and memorable event, reminding everyone present of the simple origins of Christianity and its historic place throughout the region.

For centuries, the community has known mostly peace, tucked away for protection from assailants, but dependent largely on the goodwill of the area's rulers – mostly Muslim – through the ages.

Even in the 21st century, most homes in the village are inaccessible by car. One walks through the tangled warren of centuries-old stone houses and blue stucco buildings. Some residences are no more than converted grottoes.

Until recently, the greatest threat to the village and its way of life was from tourists, who had been encouraged by the Assad regime to visit the area.

Now, however, a far greater threat has presented itself. In Wednesday's assault, the first attack the village has encountered since the start of the civil war, the jihadists seized the government-built hotel that overlooks Maalula and are reportedly firing their shells from it.

At the lower end of town sits the Convent of St. Takla, Christianity's first girl martyr. Said to be a pupil of St. Paul in the third century, Takla fled from Roman persecutors into these mountains. Legend has it that when cornered by her attackers she prayed to God who split the mountain in two, separating her from her assailants.

It may take a similar miracle to save Maalula today.

Rebel leaders would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to this community. If it does, and word reaches Washington, you can be sure that Christian members of Congress will be much less likely to support President Barack Obama's plan to attack the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Better to support the regime and attack the anti-Christian jihadists, many Americans will say.

Next week, on Sept. 14, Maalula is to celebrate its most important annual holiday – the Festival of the Cross – when large crosses are burned on the mountainside above the village.

Father Khalil of Maalula's St. Elias Church explained to me that the custom dates back to the time when every convert to Christianity was celebrated by burning a wooden cross. "It showed people all around that another person had become a Christian," he said.

The people of Maalula are undoubtedly praying that crosses are the only things burning in their village next week.