Maaloula's cathedral and churches empty of Christians as Syria's latest front-line fight takes its toll

The statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ were shrouded in smoke and dust, as every few minutes a tank shell crashed into the mountainside. Christ’s message of forgiveness had been forgotten here, the Bible’s teaching that the peacemakers are blessed seemed to echo from another world.

Syria’s soldiers were angry and frustrated. Many didn’t want us to show their faces or film their failure to recapture one of the jewels of Syria’s multi-faith mosaic. Others kissed crucifixes they wore and cursed the Nusra Islamists who, as more than one assured me “were helped and trained by Britain and America”.

The rebels claim they took Maaloula to punish the Christians there for supporting the Assad government, a support that is real but tepid. For most Christians in Syria the fear of what Islamists might do if they win this war outweighs any dislike they have for Assad’s system.

On Saturday, in a Damascus church heavy with gold and grief, they mourned the Christians killed in the battle. The framed photographs of the dead sat next to the holy icons of the Greek Orthodox faith, some men in the pews bandaged from injuries they’d received. “We blame Obama”, one woman in black yelled at me, “he should have the Nobel peace prize taken away from him – he is helping the rebels who killed our Christian brothers”.