But clerics in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula continue ringing their church bells despite the ongoing fighting, blasts and the abduction of nuns.
This is actually the only reminder of the once quiet life in the small town. The Islamists, - the Jabhat al-Nusra movement fighters, again occupied the town early this month. They broke their pledge not to harm anyone or damage the town's sacred sites and took 12 nuns prisoner. The nuns have since been held in the neighbouring town of Yabroud.
It is now clear that the promised respect for the holy Christian places was a lie. Lebanon's Al Akhbar newspaper reported several days ago that several early Christian crosses, holy vessels and statues from Maaloula have been put up for sale on the Internet. The mediators acting on behalf of An-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are looking for rich customers. Syrian relics have been stolen for more than two years now, with major museums across the world having already drawn up the "red list" of Syrian artifacts that may "accidentally" surface on the market. According to Sheila Canby, the Head of the New York-based Metropolitan Museum's Department of Islamic Art, the artifacts that can be taken out of Syria are running into danger, namely such small things as vessels and paraments, above all the enamel and glass works.
UNESCO, too, is perfectly aware of the ravaging of Maaloula, as well as Syria's ancient oasis city of Palmyra and dozens of museums in Syrian cities. In September, the UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, met the UN special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to take up the issue. Bokova said the world must react today to save the Syrian heritage, since tomorrow may be too late. According to her, UNESCO does not need to decide whether it should deal with the humanitarian crisis and protect the Syrian heritage or not. The protection of historical heritage is part of the solution for the humanitarian disaster in Syria.
But while UN high-ranking officials and culture ministers have been discussing Syria's alarming situation, invaluable icons, ancient statues and crosses continue to be taken out of Maaloula. Islamic militants go on shelling the Convent of St. Thekla and the Monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus. It is not possible to estimate the damage done to Syria's historical heritage before the guns fall silent.