Syrian President Bashar Assad on Easter Sunday visited the ancient Christian town of Maalula, which his troops recently recaptured from rebels, state television said.
“On the day of the resurrection of Christ, and from the heart of Maalula, President Assad hopes all Syrians have a happy Easter, and for the reestablishment of peace and security throughout Syria,” the channel announced in a caption at the bottom of the screen, without showing images of the visit.
It added that Assad had inspected the Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius and Bacchus) monastery, damaged in recent fighting. It said the damage had been caused by “terrorists,” using the regime’s term for rebels.
Founded in the fifth century, the monastery is one of the Middle East’s oldest. It is dedicated to two Roman Christian soldiers who were killed by emperor Galerius because of their faith.
The Facebook page of the Syrian presidency posted a picture of Assad standing next to a Christian priest. He held what appeared to be damaged friezes showing the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
Backed by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, Syria’s army took control of Maalula last Monday.
Located north of Damascus, Maalula is one of the world’s oldest Christian settlements, and its inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
Rebels and their jihadist ally Al-Nusra Front had taken control of Maalula in early December. They kidnapped 13 nuns and traded them for women prisoners held in regime jails in March.
Assad has rarely made public appearances since the outbreak of a revolt against his regime in March 2011.
Syria’s large Christian minority has sought neutrality throughout the three-year war, and has viewed the Sunni-led rebels with growing concern as jihadists have flocked to their ranks.