President Bashar Assad on Sunday toured a historic Christian village his forces recently captured from rebels, state media said, as the country's Greek Orthodox Patriarch vowed that Christians in the war-ravaged country "will not submit and yield" to extremists.
Syrian state TV and the country's official SANA news agency said Assad was in Maaloula, inspecting the damage done in recent fighting to its monasteries and churches.
The rebels, including fighters from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, took Maaloula several times late last year. Their last attempt to capture and hold on to the ancient Christian hamlet came in mid-December. Government troops swept through the village on Monday sending rebel fighters fleeing to nearby hills.
Maaloula is located some 40 miles northeast of Damascus and is home to a large Christian population. The army's triumph in the village was an important symbolic prize for the government in its quest to be seen as protector of religious minorities, including Syria's Christians, who have largely supported the Assad family's decades of rule.
During his visit to the village Sunday, Assad promised to defend Christians and protect churches that he said were part of Syria's cultural heritage.
"Nobody, regardless of the extent of their terror, can erase our cultural and human history," a report by SANA quoted Assad as saying as he surveyed damage to Mar Takla Greek Orthodox monastery. Despite damage to holy sites in the village, Assad told state TV that "Maloula will remain steadfast in face of barbarism of all those, who are targeting the homeland."
Christians make up about ten percent of Syria's population. Assad's forces and rebels trying to overthrow him are locked in a civil war in which more than 150,000 people have been killed. Millions have been driven from their homes during the 3-year-old conflict.
In comments to mark Easter, Patriarch John Yazigi called on the warring sides to end the practice of "intimidation, displacement, extremism and takfiri mentality," a term for Islamic extremists. Such radicals have become increasingly influential among rebels, attacking Christians-- who they see as infidels -- partly as punishment for their support of Assad.
Yazigi called for dialogue and reconciliation, hailing Syria as a home for Muslims and Christians alike. But he said there would be no reckoning with Islamic extremists, vowing that "we will not submit and yield to those who transgress against our people and holy places."
Syrian conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It gradually turned into a civil war after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent. The fighting has taken increasingly sectarian overtones over the past year, pitting Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad's government that is dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam to which the president's family also belongs.
In Damascus, four people, including two children, were killed in two separate attacks, SANA said. At least 11 people were injured when mortar shells exploded in Umayyad and Arnous squares midday Sunday.
Rebels frequently fire mortars into Syria's cities under government control from opposition-held suburbs, including into Damascus to disrupt life in the capital.
Also Sunday, four French journalists kidnapped and held for 10 months in Syria returned home. The joyful families of the four, Edouard Elias, Didier Francois, Nicolas Henin and Pierre Torres, were greeted by President Francois Hollande in an informal welcome ceremony Sunday morning.
The four arrived in a special plane that brought them from a town near the Turkish border where the journalists were released early Saturday.
More than a dozen people, including two bishops and a priest, are still missing after they are believed to have been abducted by extremists in Syria's rebel-controlled north.
Gunmen pulled Bishop Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church and Bishop John Ibrahim of the Assyrian Orthodox Church from their car and killed their driver on April 22 while they were traveling outside the northern city of Aleppo. And an Italian Jesuit, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, went missing in July after traveling to meet Islamic militants in the eastern city of Raqqa. The city fell into rebel hands in March 2013 and was subsequently taken over by radicals including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an Al Qaeda breakaway group.