By ANNE BARNARD and HWAIDA SAAD
BEIRUT, Lebanon — For Syrian rebels fighting in recent days around the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, any gains made in battle could be wiped out in the war of perceptions.
Their incursion into the town, led by extremist Islamists, reinforces the worst fears of Syrian Christians and could bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s claims that he is the Christians’ protector. It may also complicate President Obama’s task as he struggles to convince Americans that a military strike against Mr. Assad will not strengthen Islamic extremists.
Some of the rebels, apparently aware of their public relations problem, said in interviews that they meant Christians no harm. They filmed themselves talking politely with nuns, instructing fighters not to harm civilians or churches and touring a monastery that appeared mostly intact. They said they had withdrawn from most of the town, posted videos of shelling there by Mr. Assad’s forces and argued that the government had given the fight a sectarian cast by sending Christian militiamen from Damascus to join in.
But the damage was already done. Most of the town’s residents have fled, and Maaloula, one of the last places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken by Christians and some Muslims, has become a one-word argument against Western support for the rebels — at the worst possible time for Mr. Obama and the opponents of Mr. Assad.
Syrian-Americans lobbying against the proposed American missile strike flooded Congressional message boards with appeals for Maaloula. A common refrain was that Mr. Obama was throwing Syria’s Christians “to the lions.”
It was a powerful accusation in a region where a decade of unrest and rising sectarianism, from Iraq to Egypt, has threatened and displaced large sectors of the Middle East’s Christians, a population that had already shrunk significantly through emigration over the past century.
Reached by telephone on Monday night, Mother Pelagia Sayaf, who is in charge of Mar Taqla, a monastery in Maaloula that is among the country’s oldest, said that the 53 nuns and orphans staying there had not been harmed and that the principal damage was shattered windows. Another nun said some of the fighters were local men who promised to protect the monastery.
But the encounter with the rebels had done little to reassure the nuns that in the long run Syria’s Christians would retain the peaceful existence they had long enjoyed.
“If Maaloula survives, it will be a miracle,” Mother Sayaf said. “Maaloula is empty. You see ghosts on the walls.”
The situation in Maaloula underscores the core problems that bedevil the movement against Mr. Assad: the opposition, rooted in Syria’s Sunni majority, has failed to win over enough Christians, who make up 8 percent to 10 percent of the population, or other religious minorities. More than 450,000 Christians have fled their homes, church leaders say, during more than two years of war.
On the battlefield, well-armed radical Islamist groups, including foreign fighters, show little inclination to coordinate with local battalions, and sectarian killings and references to non-Muslims as infidels further intimidate Christians. In Maaloula, according to fighters, the rebel attack was led by members of the Nusra Front, a group with ties to Al Qaeda in Iraq, even after local fighters affiliated with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army tried and failed to dissuade them.
Last week, as the battle began, opponents of American military action in Syria circulated a recent video of a Syrian Christian woman accosting Senator John McCain, a proponent of military action, accusing him of abandoning Christians. “I could trace my family’s name to the Bible,” she said. “We refuse to be forced to leave.”
Maaloula has long symbolized Syria’s history of diversity and coexistence. Legend has it that as an early Christian saint, Taqla, was fleeing persecution, the cliffs parted to help her escape, giving the town its name, which means entrance in Aramaic. More recent lore says a small Sunni population sprang up after a Christian man converted to marry a Muslim.
Even after a movement for political rights morphed into a civil war, local Sunni and Christian leaders worked to maintain calm. Local groups of rebels have long occupied the Safir hotel on the edge of town. But until last week, Mother Sayaf said, residents moved unmolested between rebel and government territory.
“We don’t have any problem with Christians, they are living among us for thousands of years,” said Abu al-Majd, a rebel from nearby Yabroud who, like others, gave only a nickname for safety. “Before, with and after Assad.”
But on Wednesday, fighters from Homs, to the north, attacked an army post outside the town that had long shelled surrounding areas. The Nusra Front sent a Jordanian fighter to blow himself up, and a Free Syrian Army unit from Homs took part over angry objections from local fighters, rebels said.
“Wrong timing, wrong location,” said Mahmoud, an antigovernment activist in Yabroud. “Now the regime has the perfect excuse to show us in a bad light.”
On Saturday, rebels seized the town. One leader was filmed telling his men to safeguard civilians and churches. Another video showed masked rebels with grenade launchers saying they had entered for “military reasons” because the checkpoint was “harming Muslims.”
The nuns huddled in monastery rooms tunneled under the cliffs. About 25 fighters entered, including some who appeared to be Saudi, Mother Sayaf said, and one who did not understand Arabic. But one fighter, a local worker, gave his phone number and told the nuns to call if they needed help.
A rebel video shows Mother Sayaf flinching at the crash of shells but otherwise calm — at one point answering the phone, “We’re in a meeting,” and saying all is well. That statement angered some residents who fled to Bab Touma, a Christian enclave in the old city of Damascus, said Abu Tony, a leader of a neighborhood militia there. He said three residents were taken hostage and others were told, “Convert and you’ll be safe.”
Rebels and Bab Touma residents said the government sent reinforcements that included Iraqi Shiites and Christians from Bab Touma who joined “popular committees,” local government militias that are said to protect neighborhoods but that analysts and residents say are increasingly being deployed elsewhere.
The government has been shelling near the hotel and a monastery, according to rebels and Russia Today, an official television outlet that supports Mr. Assad. Rebels say they pulled out of the town to minimize the damage; others say they still occupy much of it.
The nuns could not tell what was happening outside but heard shelling and rocks falling from the cliffs, Mother Sayaf said. She tried to look on the bright side, seeing evidence of miracles.
“Neither crosses nor statues were broken,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”