I didn't note it last week when the fighting broke out around the Syrian mountain town of Ma‘alula, since it was neither the first nor a particularly unusual case of fighting in a Syrian Christian community, though predictably it caught the attention of the Western media because of Ma‘alula's distinction as one of only three towns where Western Aramaic is still spoken, giving the media the lead that it is a town that "still speaks the language of Jesus."
Longtime readers may recall my series on Aramaic a couple of years ago, when I posted about the survival of spoken Western Aramaic in the three towns of Ma‘alula, Bakh‘a, and Jubba‘din. (Eastern Aramaic, in contrast, has far more speakers, in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and in the diaspora.)
Much of the reportage (besides the earlier link, see for example here, and here) has emphasized the town's distinctive position perched in the mountains and the survival of Aramaic; reports that some of the rebels who seized the town may have been from Jabhat al-Nusra, including a suicide bombing at the roadblock controlling entry to the town (allowing the headlines to link al-Qa‘ida allies and a town that speaks the language of Jesus) naturally drew attention. (For a Syrian Christian account and links, see here.)
But it was not attention that the Syrian rebels needed in a week when the US was gearing up for an attack on the Asad regime. It gave ammunition to those abroad (including many Western critics who fear that the rebels will be hostile to Syrian Christians), and of course the Asad regime quickly made propaganda. Reports that the rebels destroyed a large, prominent statue of the Virgin Mary in the town, and that they occupied the ancient Greek Catholic convent of Mar Taqla while the nuns hid in caves, provided more fuel for fear of what some Syrian rebels intend toward minorities.
As usual in this war, the evidence is conflicting. The rebels posted videos showing the Mar Taqla Mother Superior saying the nuns had been well treated (and there are reports that when Asad forces retook the town, she was accused of collaboration with the rebels). Ultimate control of the town is still in doubt as the fighting has gone back and forth.
If indeed the fighters around Ma‘alula are from Jabhat al-Nusra, they may have little interest in what happens to the ancient Christian churches and monasteries around the town, but they may have given a black eye to the rebel cause just as the US was eyeball-to-eyeball with the Asad regime. Other Christian communities in Syria (and elsewhere) have suffered as much, but the "speaks the language of Jesus" aspect (and the picturesque nature of the town) guaranteed more coverage of the fate of Ma‘alula than would have been (has in fact been) the case with a less famous Syrian Christian town.