A grim Christmas for those driven from Syria's Maalula

A grim Christmas for those driven from Syria's Maalula

DAMASCUS - After fleeing a rebel assault on the historic Syrian town of Maalula, hundreds of Christian families sheltering in Damascus are preparing for a bleak Christmas away from home.

The picturesque hamlet - where residents still speak the ancient Aramaic of Jesus Christ - was a symbol of the long Christian presence in Syria's ethnic and religious mosaic, now shattered by war.

The residents of Maalula are among the millions of Syrians displaced by a war that shows no sign of ending, and what should be a joyful holiday season is instead the latest painful reminder of all that has been lost.

"The most beautiful gift I could possibly receive for Christmas would be to return to Maalula," whispered Hneineh Taalab, who fled in early September after jihadist fighters entered the town and is now sheltering at a Damascus convent.

Taalab said jihadists from Al-Nusra Front, a rebel group linked to Al-Qaeda, murdered her 20-year-old son Sarkis Zakhem when they took over Maalula on September 8, after four days of fighting troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

"Al-Nusra also killed my brother and my cousin because they refused to convert to Islam."

The army briefly retook Maalula from rebels, but the troops were again expelled earlier this month as the Al-Nusra Front and other rebels swept into the mostly deserted town.

As Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios Laham III meets with the refugees in a dark and draughty church in Damascus he prays "for the return of love and hope" to Syria and mourns those who have been killed and kidnapped.

Christians, who make up some five per cent of Syria's population, have largely avoided taking sides in the conflict, leading hardline rebel groups to charge them with being complicit with the regime.

Some 1,200 Christians are among the estimated 126,000 people killed in the conflict, according to Laham.

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