Syria Islamist rebels take control of historic Christian town of Maaloula

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(CNN) — An al Qaeda-linked rebel group has wrested control of the historic Christian town of Maaloula from regime forces, opposition groups said Sunday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the hardline Islamist rebels of the al-Nusra Front seized control Saturday night.

Videos posted on YouTube in recent days showed fighting between rebels and government forces in the tiny sleepy town, an hour’s drive from the capital Damascus.

“We cleansed Maaloula from all the Assad dogs and all his thugs,” a rebel commander shouts at the camera in a video posted online over the weekend.

What the capture will mean for the Christian residents waits to be seen.

As the 18-month-long Syrian conflict festers, the government and the opposition welcome and need Christian support.

But some Christians fear radical Islamists have been swelling rebel ranks.

They also fear the same fate as a number of Christians during the war in Iraq, where militants targeted them and spurred many to leave the country.

Christians make up roughly 10% of the population. Syria is ruled by a government dominated by Alawites, whose faith is an offshoot of Shiism. The regime is opposed by an opposition with a large Sunni presence.

Aid agencies say Syria’s 2 million Christians are often targeted for suspected sympathies to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Two top bishops have been kidnapped; a well-known priest is missing.

Antoinette Nassrallah, the Christian owner of a cafe in Maaloula, told CNN last year she had seen government TV images depicting radical Muslim attacks on Christians. She said she has heard about such violence in Aleppo.

“For now in our area here it’s fine,” she said last year. “But what I heard, in Aleppo, they are killing, destroying many of churches — very, very old churches.”

Many of Syria’s Christians have fled to Lebanon where they shelter in monasteries.

On Saturday, they joined in prayers for peace promoted by Pope Francis in Rome.

Last year, the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions on leaders of al-Nusra while the State Department blacklisted it as a foreign terror organization linked to al Qaeda in Iraq.

Al-Nusra Front has emerged as one of the most effective groups in the Syrian resistance, drawing on foreign fighters with combat experience in Iraq and elsewhere.

But Washington accuses the group of using the Syrian conflict to advance its own ideology and ends.

Elsewhere in Syria, Russia sent a plane to pick up its citizens from the war-torn Middle East nation, state media reported Sunday.

From Hamdi Alkhshali and Nic Robertson

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