A senior Russian Orthodox church official has welcomed requests for Russian citizenship by thousands of Syrian Christians as a sign of his country's moral standing in the region.
Residents of Qalamoun, an area of predominantly Christian villages, like Maaloula, which was recently targeted by the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, have written to President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, requesting Russian citizenship as a way of guarding against "conspiracy by the West" and "hateful fanatics waging a brutal war" against Syria.
Maaloula, whose population was 3,300, is now reported empty of Christians, apart from 15 nuns and 10 to 15 orphans.
The Christians believe that "the purpose of the Western-backed terrorists is to eliminate our presence in what is our native land, and with some of the most revolting methods as well, including savage murders of ordinary people," the letter says.
"None of the about 50,000 people - physicians, engineers, lawyers, entrepreneurs - who are willing to sign this application want to leave their homes," the letter says.
"This appeal vividly illustrates Russia's high authority in the Middle East, especially among its Christian minorities," said Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, the Moscow Pariarchate's deputy director for external church relations.
The Orthodox official told the Interfax news agency Russia's judicial authorities were unlikely to accept the Christian citizenship pleas, but said it was still a "great honour" to hear them being tabled.