From theÂ TelegraphÂ by Esmerelda Weatherwax
Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria is attacking one of the country’s remaining Christian strongholds, as it presses its offensive against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, who have pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, are encircling the historic Christian town of Mhardeh and bombarding it with artillery, residents have told The Telegraph.
For centuries Mhardeh was a safe haven for Syria’s Greek Orthodox Christians, recently housing a population of approximately 23,000.
The spires of five carefully maintained churches are dotted on the town’s horizon, and its population is proud of the city’s heritage as the birthplace of Ignatius IV Hazim, the late Patriarch of Antioch.
Now however, Mhardeh – known locally as the “city of the sun” – has been plunged into the centre of the Syrian civil war. The threat to the town is a stark reminder that jihadist bloodletting is not confined to Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), the group that has declared an Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and made itself the focus of world attention. Located just 20 miles north of the central city of Hama, on a road that leads to the coastal heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite sect, and close to one of the Syrian government’s largest military bases, Mhardeh had long been a marked city.
For the rebels to advance against the regime in central Syria, cut off the government’s supply lines to their front lines in the northern city of Aleppo, and eventually reach the Alawites in Latakia, they need to control Mhardeh. In a statement posted on a jihadist forum and translated by the SITE Intelligence group, al-Nusra made Mhardeh a focus of its offensive.
But last month, as attention was focused on Isil seizing swathes of northern Iraq and consolidating its control over its territories in northern Syria, al-Nusra and local allied rebel groups launched a renewed and concerted offensive in Hama region.
Jabhat al-Nusra has generally shown itself to be less extreme than its jihadist counterpart Isil, whose practices of regular beheadings and crucifixions have been deemed too abhorrent even for Ayman al-Zawahiri, who publicly denounced the group earlier this year. When al-Nusra captured and then released a group of nuns from the Christian town of Maaloula, the sisters reported that they had been “treated well”.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a Nusra takeover remain’s terrifying for Mhardeh’s residents.
Christian villages that have fallen into the hands of Nusra and its allies, such as Kasab in the north of the country, have seen churches desecrated and religious monuments destroyed. Under the jihadists’ hardline rule, Christians are formally allowed to remain if they convert to Islam or pay the “Jeziya”, a religious tax that is supposed to guarantee protection. But the reality – especially at the hands of more hardline foreign jihadists who have come to Syria to wage “holy jihad” – is more violent.
In practice, residents of Christian communities overrun by Nusra have invariably fled their homes, and hold out little prospect of returning.
Hama province was said to be home to the largest agglomeration of Greek Orthodox Christians in Syria. However, in addition to Mhardeh, Christian residents Suqalbiyeh and other Christian settlements in the province are also being threatened, Greek Orthodox Patriarchal Assistant Bishop Luca al- Khouri told The Telegraph.
Aware that if they left and Nusra took control, they would be unlikely to return, residents in Mhardeh have posted defiant messages on their Twitter and Facebook pages, saying they “will fight to the death”. Priests in the local churches have been urging residents not to escape, preaching that God is on their side, residents said.
“We cannot lose: we only have one option, to achieve victory, Because if we leave we will never be able to come back.”