MAALOULA, SYRIA -- A woman who survived an assault by Syrian rebel coalition forces says that her small village of Maaloula was terrorized by anti-Christian Islamic jihadists.
Maaloula is about 45 minutes north of Damascus and is significant for Christians worldwide as it is one of the few places left on Earth where people speak Aramaic, which is believed to be the language of Jesus.
The attack on Maaloula that began in early September has been a political football for the forces trying to sway world opinion about Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and the loose U.S.-backed coalition trying to topple his reign.
The rebels issued press releases following their assault on the village claiming the rights of Christians were protected, while the Assad regime made a show on Syrian state-run television of bringing supplies to Maaloula's people.
Wider political implications aside, the story told by a woman who endured the attack before escaping with her family from the village is a harrowing one. This reporter was the first journalist with whom she spoke.
She described hearing a "big explosion" at the village checkpoint and seeing about 50-60 Syrian rebels entering the town and shouting "Allahu Akbar!"
This claim is backed by a YouTube video posted by the rebels in which they can clearly be heard shouting the phrase that means "Allah is the greatest!"
Rebels quickly broke down three different doors to get into the home as the woman, her husband and daughter hid in a bedroom.
Three men came in, two completely masked, and put a machine gun to her husband's head. They then proceeded to insult Jesus, Mary and the cross, and forced the family to say "Allahu Akbar."
The attackers went to the family's roof and for an hour and a half, the rebels used the rooftop in their battle for the town.
As the family huddled in the bedroom, they could hear gunfire from the roof as attackers destroyed their home. A statue of the Virgin Mary was smashed, as were the family's other Christian icons.
The family had hidden a mobile phone from the rebel attackers and covertly used it to contact neighbors, who told them when it was safe to flee.
Because of the attack on their home immediately after what proved to be a suicide bombing at the village checkpoint, the woman and her family suspect that some of their Muslim neighbors were somehow involved.
While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently told Congress that the Free Syrian Army faction is "moderate" in comparison to the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra forces, the woman said the Free Syrian Army fighters worked side-by-side with the supposedly more "radical" forces in terrorizing Christian residents of Maaloula.
At one point in recalling the events, the woman broke down in tears, saying she feared that her daughter would be raped and the family killed.
Her fear was based on reports she'd seen on state-run Syrian television of rebels raping prisoners. Her daughter was not raped and her family survived the ordeal, but a half dozen deaths were confirmed in Maaloula.
Other witnesses interviewed by this reporter said that three of the deaths were citizens of Maaloula who refused to renounce their Christian faith.
Additionally, residents reported that relatives were kidnapped by rebel forces. Kidnappings have become a common tactic across Syria for rebels to raise money or use as bargaining chips for possible future negotiations.
Maloulaa has been almost completely abandoned by Christian residents in the aftermath of the rebel attack. It once had a population of about 3,300 people but now is nearly empty.
Many of the village's refugees fled to Damascus, while other went on to Lebanon.Independent journalist Lee Stranahan is covering the Syrian civil war and may be contacted here.