BEIRUT (AP) — President Bashar Assad on Sunday toured a historic Christian village his forces recently captured from rebels, state media said, as the country's Greek Orthodox Patriarch vowed that Christians in the war-ravaged country "will not submit and yield" to extremists.
Syrian state TV and the country's official SANA news agency said Assad was in Maaloula, inspecting the damage done in recent fighting to its monasteries and churches.
The rebels, including fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, took Maaloula several times late last year. Their last attempt to capture and hold on to the ancient Christian hamlet came in mid-December. Government troops swept through the village on Monday sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills.
Maaloula is located some 40 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Damascus and is home to a large Christian population. The army's triumph in the village was an important symbolic prize for the government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities, including Syria's Christians, who have largely supported the Assad family's decades of rule.
Christians make up about ten percent of Syria's population. Assad's forces and rebels trying to overthrow him are locked in a civil war in which more than 150,000 people have been killed. Millions have been driven from their homes during the 3-year-old conflict.
In comments to mark Easter, Patriarch John Yazigi called on the warring sides to end the practice of "intimidation, displacement, extremism and takfiri mentality," a term for Islamic extremists. Such radicals have become increasingly influential among rebels, attacking Christians— who they see as infidels — partly as punishment for their support of Assad.
Yazigi called for dialogue and reconciliation, hailing Syria as a home for Muslims and Christians alike. But he said there would be no reckoning with Islamic extremists, vowing that "we will not submit and yield to those who transgress against our people and holy places."
Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It gradually turned into a civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. The fighting has taken increasingly sectarian overtones over the past year, pitting Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam to which the president's family also belongs.