DAMASCUS, Syria — The sound of artillery reverberated Thursday through a predominantly Christian village north of Damascus as government troops and al-Qaeda-linked rebels battled for a second day for control of the mountainside sanctuary.
The hit-and-run attacks on the ancient village of Maaloula, one of the few places in the world where residents still speak Aramaic, highlighted fears among Syria’s religious minorities about the growing role of extremists among those fighting in the civil war to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The fighting in Maaloula began early Wednesday when militants from Jabhat al-Nusra stormed in after a suicide bomber struck an army checkpoint at the entrance.
The group, listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, is one of the most effective fighting forces among Syrian rebels. The suicide attack sparked battles that terrified residents of the village, famous for two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria — Mar Sarkis and Mar Takla.
Rami Abdulrahman, the pseudonym for the director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that despite the army presence in the village, the rebels staged hit-and-run attacks, at one point patrolling the streets on foot and in vehicles, and briefly surrounding a church and a mosque before leaving early Thursday.
Fighting around the village, which is on a UNESCO list of tentative world heritage sites, continued throughout the day. “The stones are shaking,” a nun at Mar Takla said. “We don’t know if the rebels have left or not. Nobody dares go out.”
The incident highlights fears among Syrian Christians that the alternative to Assad’s regime, made up mostly of Alawites — followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam — would not tolerate minority religions.
Such fears have allowed Assad to retain the support of many members of Syria’s minorities, which include Christians, Alawites, Druze and ethnic Kurds. Most of the rebels are Sunni Muslims.