MAALOULA, Syria, September 29 (Itar-Tass) - Syrian militants have annihilated one of the most ancient active Christian churches in the world and have either stolen or destroyed its widely acclaimed icons, Itar-Tass correspondent covering the crisis in Syria said in his eyewitness dispatch from the small town of Maaloula, known as one of a handful of places where people still speak and pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago…
The Church in the name of St Sergius and St Bacchus, two Roman warriors put to death for their faith in Christ during the reign of Emperor Maximilian, was built at the beginning of the 4th century. Most recently, its compound was housing a convent but the nuns had to resettle urgently to the Convent of St Thecla, also in Maaloula, about a month ago when militants of the Jabhat at-Nusra terrorist front drove into the town.
The nuns and about forty orphaned children are still taking shelter in Mar Takla, as the convent is known in Arabic. It is totally impossible to approach its territory even now, as the militants open dense fire from sniping rifles, sparing no one including journalists.
The problem is that standing nearby the St Sergius and Bacchus’s Church /called by the local residents Mar Sarkis or Abu Serga/ is the hotel Safir that provided accommodation to numerous Christian pilgrims and tourists in the past but was then seized by Islamic extremists.
Syrian government troops have practically razed the building to the ground but the militants are still hiding out in its basement floors and in the adjoining caves, which the Christians monks reshaped into cells.
The dwellings that were once the hermitages for contemplation of divine issues and prayer have now turned into reinforced positions for incessant firing.
The list of works of art and historic relics that have been lost forever in Mar Sarkis includes the invaluable icon of St Sergius painted in the 13th century that the believers and visitors could see earlier right at the entrance. The iconostasis and its central icons of the Virgin Mary with Jesus the Hierarch have been scourged.
The latter icon always amazed researchers for the fact it showed Jesus wearing a long silk dress with gold threads - a style of icon-painting much more typical of the 18th century Damascus than of the earliest centuries of Christianity.
The altar of the church dedicated to St Sergius and Bacchus does not exist anymore either. Its semicircular shape and the small enough flange were clearly indicative of its linkage to pagan altars.
Only fragments of it remain today.
It is a really wild guess forecasting how much time and efforts the experts will need to estimate the damage inflicted on this religious shrine and its unparalleled relics of culture and history but an amateurish visual examination prompts a conclusion that the church compound is not subject to restoration.
The main cross has been knocked off from the dome. The frescos on the walls have been scarred and notched by bullets and fragments of shells. The walls expose the holes left by larger munitions elsewhere and in some places breaches are gaping.
On this background, the militants continue shelling what has been left of the walls from mortars.
Soldiers of government troops told Itar-Tass they had managed to save one of the icons but it had been damaged by gunfire, too. It is being kept by a soldier’s family at present and Syrian governmental agencies are aware of the fact, they said.
Army servicemen, however, were unable to identify or to describe the icon.
In the meantime, government troops continue a non-stop operation to round up the militants hiding out in mountain gorges and unwilling to withdraw from the ancient Maaloula, a village that has for centuries been the place of residence of bishops. Military spokespeople are confident that the operation will be successful but they feel apprehensive of the militants’ vengefulness and say the latter may gun down not only the convent of St Thecla Equal to the Apostles but also the five other churches.
The scenes opening to the eye up in Maaloula are not reassuring, to put it mildly. It is not ruled out that some of the local people, for whom the language spoken by Savior is still the native tongue, will return here after sometime, but the Maaloula that mankind has known since the early Byzantine times has obviously been lost forever.