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President Assad stages Easter visit to Christian town in Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has visited a historic Christian town recently retaken by his regime forces. During the Easter visit to Maaloula, Assad met with a Christian priest.

As Pope Francis called for the two sides of the Syrian civil war to "boldly negotiate" peace in the three-year conflict, Assad made a rare public appearance in the town of Maaloula, a historic Christian town known as one of the world's oldest Christian settlements.

The town was recently held by rebels that oppose Assad's regime, but Syrian army forces – backed by soldiers from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement – recaptured it earlier this week.

During a visit to the town's Christian sites, Assad was photographed holding religious artifacts – some of which had been damaged.

"Even the worst terrorists cannot erase our heritage and civilization," Assad said, according to Syrian state television. The regime refers to anti-government rebels as terrorists.

"Like other Syrian sites of heritage and civilization, Maaloula will always resist in the face of the barbarity and obscurantism that are targeting the country," Assad continued.

Maaloula, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of Damascus, is home to a large Christian population, some of whom still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. Christians belong to the minority in Syria but the Assad regime has made efforts to show that it is acting to protect minorities in the crisis. The town has sustained heavy damage in the fighting and has changed hands many times.

The

civil war in Syria

dates back to March 2011 and has claimed over 150,000 lives. Millions of people have also been

forced to leave their homes

.

mz/kms (Reuters, AFP, AP, dpa)

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