After the liberation of Ma’alula from occupation by terrorist groups on Monday, 14 April 2014, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III and Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Mario Zenari, together with a Syriac Orthodox bishop representing his Patriarch, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Greek Orthodox bishops, a church choir from Damascus, the Minister of Tourism, the Governor of Damascus Countryside, local shaykhs and members of the Syrian People’s Army and journalists visited the historic town of Ma’alula on the day of this year’s common celebration of the Paschal Feast, to view the state of the holy places after some seven months of occupancy by Islamist fighters. Their Beatitudes together with the above-mentioned bishops visited four Christian holy places: the Greek Catholic church of St. George, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Elias, the Greek Orthodox Convent and shrine of St. Thekla and the Greek Catholic Monastery and shrine of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus.
A scene of devastation met their eyes at every turn. The shrine of St. Thekla was blackened and the relics preserved for centuries by Orthodox nuns had disappeared. (The twelve sisters of the convent had been kidnapped by rebels on December 2 2013 and only released on March 10 2014.) The iconostasis of St. George had been totally burned, and the sanctuaries of St. George and St. Elias had been plundered, their windows smashed, the marble altars broken and icons and furnishings burnt. The acrid stench from the charred ruins made a long stay on the sites unbearable. The worst devastation was at the monastery of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus, a shrine dating back to the fourth century. Two cupolas were open to the sky and one wall of the sanctuary so severely damaged as to be on the point of collapse. The monks’ rooms were also partially destroyed. The historic icons, painted between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, have disappeared.
The people of Ma’alula, who sought shelter and refuge in Damascus over recent months, are unable to return to their homes, which have been damaged and looted so as to be uninhabitable. The Syrian Government is now restoring electricity and sanitation to the town as a first step towards facilitating the return of its inhabitants, who are famously Aramaic-speaking and predominantly Christian.