Al Qaeda-linked Syrian rebels who seized the ancient regime-held Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one after he refused, residents said Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported.
“They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,’” an Islamist term for Christians, a woman, who identified herself as Marie, told AFP in Damascus.
Thousands headed to the capital Wednesday to attend the burial of three Christians from the village who have been killed.
“Maalula is the wound of Christ,” mourners chanted as they marched through the streets, AFP said.
Clashes first erupted on Wednesday, when an al-Nusra fighter blew himself up at a regime checkpoint at the entrance to the village. The rebels eventually seized the checkpoint and disabled two tanks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
On Tuesday night, “the Free Syrian Army said rebels had withdrawn from Maalula to spare its people and heritage, but only on the condition that the regime kept its forces out as well,” AFP reported.
Recalling the events from last Wednesday, 62-year-old Adnan Nasrallah said he saw “people wearing Al-Nusra headbands who started shooting at crosses.”
One of them “put a pistol to the head of my neighbor and forced him to convert to Islam by obliging him to repeat ‘there is no God but God.’”
“Afterwards they joked, ‘he’s one of ours now,’” said Mr. Nasrallah, who spent 42 years running a restaurant in the U.S. state of Washington.
“I had a great dream,” he told AFP. “I came back to my country to promote tourism. I built a guesthouse and spent $2,000 installing a windmill to provide electricity in the town.
“My dream has gone up in smoke. Forty-two years of work for nothing,” he added.
AFP reported that the most tragic story was that of Rasha, whose fiance Atef was brutally murdered by the jihadists.
“I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.
“Good morning, Rash rush,” the voice said, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”
The man told Rasha her fiance had been given the choice to convert to Islam or die.
“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.