Jihadist fighters shell a Christian village northeast of Damascus, exposing the sectarian divide in Syria’s civil war.

Syrians walk in one of the streets of village of Maaloula

Rebels attacked the predominantly Christian village of Maaloula

Residents of a Christian village in western Syria have taken shelter in a convent as it was bombarded by al Qaeda-linked rebels.

The rebel fighters stormed a hotel atop a mountain overlooking Maaloula to carry out the attack, said a nun, speaking on condition of anonymity from a convent in the village.

“It’s a war. It has been going from 6am in the morning,” she said.

Some 80 people took refuge in the convent, which houses 13 nuns and 27 orphans.

Women shout slogans during a sit-in to protest against potential U.S. strikes on Syria in Damascus
A protest in Damascus against potential US stikes

The dawn assault was carried out by rebels from the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al Nusra group, according to a government official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition monitoring group.

It said the assault began with rebels seizing a government checkpoint after an al Nusra fighter blew himself up at the entrance.

They disabled two tanks and an armoured personnel carrier and killed eight regime soldiers in fighting, it said.

The Syrian military responded by sending warplanes to bomb the area, local sources told Sky News.

Situated some 40 miles northeast of Damascus, the mountain village is home to around 2,000 residents, some of whom still speak a version of Aramaic, the ancient language of biblical times believed to have been spoken by Jesus.

A bakery in Damascus
Life goes on as normal in a regime-stronghold part of the capital

The four-decade iron rule of the Assad clan over Syria has long rested on support from the country’s ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, Shia Muslims and Kurds.

The Assad family and key regime figures are Alawites, followers of an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Most rebels and their supporters are Sunni Muslims – the two main camps being the Western-backed Free Syrian Army, which portrays itself as the largest fighting group, and jihadist fighters, including thousands from outside Syria.

There were also fresh clashes in and around Damascus.

A mortar shell fired by rebels hit a sports hall in the capital, killing a member of the national taekwondo team.

Mohammed Ali Neimeh, 27, had been training for an upcoming Islamic Solidarity Tournament in Indonesia this week, the state news agency SANA said.

Father Amir Kassar, a Catholic priest in Damascus
Father Amir Kaasar, a priest injured in an attack on a Christian quarter

With the world focused on possible foreign military action in Syria, security in Damascus has been raised with government forces convinced that rebels will use any US strike as cover to launch an offensive.

Father Amir Kassar, a Catholic priest who was severely injured when a Christian quarter was hit by rebel rockets, said he fears that if outside forces join the fight, the sectarian divisions pitching Syrians against each other, will get worse.

“We don’t care who is the ruler of this country. We are against the formation of an Islamic state. We want a Syrian secular state for all Syrians,” he told Sky News from his hospital bed.

Speaking from Damascus, Sky’s Alex Rossi said: “There is a real nervousness in the city with military action hanging over every day life. It really is on edge.”