The Christian Syrian town of Maaloula is celebrating a new statue of the Virgin Mary, which was recently erected in the town's center as a symbol of peace. The figure was established over the weekend in replacement of an earlier statute of the mother of Jesus Christ, which was destroyed in rebel attacks in 2013.
On Saturday, dozens of families gathered alongside government officials and religious dignitaries in the main square of the historic town, which was adorned with government flags and a giant portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Maaloula, which is located north of Damascus, is one of the world's oldest Christian settlements. The town is known to house two of the country's oldest monasteries, Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla. Residents of the Maaloula still speak Aramaic, the language of biblical times believed to have been used by Jesus.
Surrounded by cheering citizens, Syrian officials unveiled the new, ten-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, draped in a white robe topped with a blue shawl, her hands lifted in prayer.
"I made the statue as a message of peace for the ancient and unparalleled town of Maaloula," said sculptor Buhaij al-Khoury, the Times of Israel reports.
In 2013, Syrian rebels led by al-Qaeda-linked fighters seized control of the predominantly Christian village, sweeping into the mountainside sanctuary in heavy fighting overnight and forcing over 5,000 people to flee. The fighting damaged the ancient Mar Sarkis monastery and destroyed several structures in the town, including the statue of the Virgin Mary.
Multiple other churches, including one called Demyanos, were reportedly torched and robbed of many historic artifacts.
One resident who fled the town also recalled how militants, attempting to establish a caliphate in the region, forced some Christian residents to convert to Islam.
"I saw the militants grabbing five villagers Wednesday and threatening them: 'Either you convert to Islam or you will be beheaded,'" he said, the Huffington Post reported.
However, in April 2014, government troops backed by pro-regime militia recaptured the town from rebel groups, along with the nearby villages of Sarkha and Jibbeh.
One female resident of Maaloula, who returned to the town after it was recaptured, expressed horror at the destruction carried out by the jihadist fighters.
"The display of hatred was clear - the houses are totally destroyed, the whole village was destroyed. I can't describe the amount of damage to the village," she said at the time.
Now, Christians living within the village are hoping to rebuild their city, restoring it to its ancient glory.
Speaking to the AP, a young Christian woman named Samya said, "The statue was a symbol of protection for me, and when it was gone I felt a huge loss,"
Samya, who works as a pharmacist and is a resident of Maaloula, added, "Maaloula is now back to normal with the return of the statue."