“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13) There is nothing more accurate than these words by Jesus Christ for the people of Saidnaya, Syria.
The majority of the city’s citizens are from well-off families and many of them have residency permits in foreign countries and own houses in the capital, Damascus. Yet no one left the region after the eruption of the Syrian war. Rather, quite the opposite is true. With the escalation of the crisis, some families left the capital to settle back into their homes in Saidnaya.
The city rings its bells whenever danger is imminent, as was the case when mortar shells hit the Cherubim Monastery and the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya during the fourth attack [against the city] on Jan. 19. The city’s citizens are now “wanted” by armed militants.
Being from Saidnaya is enough reason to be killed by the militants who have suffered heavy defeats there, the most recent of which was the fourth attack. What’s more, the city’s people are also guilty of being nasara, a derogatory term used by armed groups to refer to Christians.
The city’s people boasted about the latest battle. “They are all dead. No one is left to tell the story,” they say about the insurgents, ignoring the shells showering them every day.
They cling to their faith in the Virgin Mary and her son, turning a deaf ear toward the promises of car bombs or more direct threats: “You will be next, after Maaloula,” recounts one of the city’s dignitaries.
Saidnaya, which means “Our Lady,” is located at 1,450 meters (4,760 feet) above sea level and inhabited by 20,000 people, most of them Christians. It houses 21 monasteries and 40 churches, in addition to the Saidnaya Great Mosque, which appears to your left when you reach the courtyard of the monastery.
A large number of cafes and hotels are located on the route to the monastery, but they are all out of service in light of the crisis in Syria and the clashes raging in the region.
An amusement park also lies on the road, but it stopped operating three years ago. There is not much left of the park, except for a painting of a smiling child in a rusty car and the big Ferris wheel that stopped turning. The painting seems to hope that the clock will go back and it will turn again.
The Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya is one of the main Christian attractions in the region, perched on the façade of Mount Qalamoun.
Over the years, the convent received millions of worshipers and pilgrims from all corners of the earth. It is regarded as one of the oldest and most beautiful Christian monuments in the world.
Inside the majestic convent, you walk to the beat of your heart in a place filled with the smell of incense and holiness. Through the outer stairs, you go upward, passing through a small tunnel to reach the courtyard with its colored grounds.
The convent was in built in the year 547, and monks have been living there since the fifth century B.C. In 1759, it was destroyed in a strong earthquake and was rebuilt in 1766 and restored in 1860.
During the latest crisis, the convent has been heavily bombed by dozens of mortar shells, causing significant damage. The latest shell went through the convent’s stone roof, cracking it in half, before settling in the room without exploding.
“Mortar bombs have failed to hit the citizens. The Virgin Mary is protecting the village and the people,” says one of the area residents.
In the Shagoura, which is a small cave carved into the rock, you are asked to take off your shoes in reverence for the sanctity of the place. The candles lit by worshipers illuminate the pitch-black cave filled with the smell of incense, while oil lamps hang from the church’s ceiling.
In the middle of the holy place lies an icon of the Virgin Mary painted by St. Luke. It is one of the five icons painted by the apostle.
In 888, a monk called Theodore brought the icon to the convent. He arrived before Easter to Saidnaya in a caravan of pilgrims heading to Jerusalem. He informed the head of the convent, mother Marina, of his intention to offer the icon he brought from Jerusalem.
In the church, you pray and light a candle and suddenly you are overwhelmed by an exceptional feeling of peace and humility. A nun would rush to ask you, “Did you take some incense and oil? How many blessed threads do you want?”
“Where are you from?” she would also ask. If you tell her you are from Lebanon, she would launch into a long narrative about Lebanese worshipers visiting the convent who never stopped pouring in, especially on St. Mary’s day. She would express her longing for those days.
“We never thought that we would suffer as we are today. Our faith in God and the Virgin Mary is great,” she’d say. If your tears betrayed you in the face of this injustice plaguing our land, she would hand you a handkerchief to dry them up, holding your hand and saying, “Do not be afraid. I am with you until the end of time.” (It's a saying by Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew.)
In the warm hall where photos of the Virgin Mary, patriarchs and prioresses are hung, the assistant prioress receives you to learn of the reason behind your being there. If it is a mere visit, Prioress Mother Verona Nabhan is ready to welcome the guests. When it comes to journalists, however, Nabhan now refuses to meet with them.
The assistant prioress asks about the reason behind the requested meeting. After answering, she smiles and calls on the prioress, who begins by saying, “The media has gotten to a point where it offends the people and the cause. It is adding fuel to the fire.”
Nabhan noted in her interview with As-Safir that bombs are continuously fired on the monastery. The sisters confront the cannon through daily prayers for the sake of “the homeland and the army, and to preserve our dignity and the sovereignty of our land so as not to be affected by demons.”
Nabhan adds that the “princesses of the Virgin Mary” — the girls who live in the orphanage — follow the traces of mortar bombs and investigate the damages. She affirmed that "[The girls] should understand and know what is going on. It is our responsibly and the parents' to not hide the plight of the country from them. They are part of the future of this planet.”
Nabhan refuses to talk about her communication with the Maaloula nuns, saying only, “This should not have happened. In any way, violating the town must have been thwarted. God be merciful. Oh, Virgin Mary, the soldier, the savior.” Nabhan called on Mary to protect the region.
On another level, a military source in the region says, “A stranger cannot lay a foot on this land at a time when even elderly people exceeding 70 years old are fighting.” The source noted that the region has been subject to bombardment for a year. Clashes have escalated as militants are trying to achieve a “presumed victory” and take control of Saidnaya after Maaloula.
One of the residents recounts, “The area has sacrificed 22 martyrs during the battles in the monastery and throughout Syria.” He reminds us, “Philip Ahmar died during the fourth attack after he insisted to head to the Cherubim monastery. After the death of Elias, his brother was on his own. Therefore, he engaged in the fighting, while Joseph and his two brothers stood at checkpoints.”
The 60-year-old resident looks at me with blue eyes filled with confidence, pride and determination, saying, “We are impatiently waiting for the response of militants and their return to our land.” He continues, “Do you see the guy standing at the checkpoint?" He points at a man belonging to the National Defense Force. "God and the Virgin Mary saved him. He cheated death.” The man was transporting the wounded during the latest attacks against the monastery. Militants set up an ambush and hid behind the rocks. Then, they opened fire on the car, wounding everyone but him, and he was able to deliver the wounded people and the martyr. The car stopped at the checkpoint of al-Jana restaurant at the entrance to the area.
One of the residents recounts that a monk bore a weapon and was ready to support the Syrian forces in their fight against extremists. Christian clerics in the area support the Syrian army and the National Defense Force, saying, “You did not die, but haven’t you seen those who did?”
Muslim clerics in Saidnaya supported the war on extremism, saying that attacks were equally targeting Christians and Muslims and distorting the image of Islam. They also opened their eyes to the fact that the practices of armed groups in the areas of their influence that do not abide by Islamic rules explicitly violate the principle of freedom of religion. In Saidnaya, women have played a leading role in the events. They served as a pillar of support. Women cooked, weaved wool, received first-aid training and encouraged the men of the village to fight against the fierce campaign aiming to displace the residents and take control over the historical village.
A while ago, Jabhat al-Nusra disseminated a video in which they addressed Christians, saying: “Over the two years we have been fighting, you supported the tyrant of Damascus and his thugs. You were uninvolved, and we protected you. Now, you have turned your churches and sanctities into military barracks for that tyrant, and God forbids that we accept this.” Jabhat al-Nusra warned: “God willing, the unsheathed swords of Islam will be raised on your necks in your own houses. God bear witness to what we say.”
The report shows the bombardment of the monastery coupled with a song that goes: “We tear apart the tyrant and apostasy with a great determination and a will that knows no defeat. We will color the dawn with our blood. The night of polytheism and atheism will be long gone.”
The residents face the failed attempts of terrorists with further resistance, determination and a smile. Saidnaya, in which Noah planted the first vine — as legends have it — is offering sacrifices on the altar of Syria’s salvation.