Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has visited the ancient Christian town of Maalula, which his troops recently recaptured from rebels, on Easter Sunday, state television says.
“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 re-establishment 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 said Assad had inspected the Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius and Bacchus) monastery, damaged in recent fighting caused by “terrorists”, using the regime’s term for rebels.
“Even the worst terrorists cannot erase our heritage and civilisation,” state television quoted Assad as saying.
“Like other Syrian sites of heritage and civilisation, Maalula will always resist in the face of the barbarity and obscurantism that are targeting the country.”
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 – who has rarely appeared in public since the uprising began – standing next to a Christian priest. He held what appeared to be damaged friezes showing the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ.
Throughout Syria’s conflict, the Assad regime has sought to portray itself as the protector of the country’s religious minorities against a revolt it says is led by foreign-backed extremists.
The Syrian opposition dismisses such claims as part of a divide-and-rule strategy which is also aimed at deterring the West from providing greater support to the rebels.
In Paris, French President Francois Hollande says France has “information” but no firm proof that Assad’s regime is still using chemical weapons.
“What I do know is what we have seen from this regime is the horrific methods it is capable of using and the rejection of any political transition,” Hollande told the Europe 1 radio station on Sunday when asked about reports Assad was using chemical weapons.
His Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told the same station there were “indications, which have yet to be verified, that there have been recent chemical attacks”.
He said they were “much less significant than those in Damascus a few months ago but very deadly”, and had taken place in the northwest of the country, near the Lebanese border.