Syria’s Christians hunker down amid war to celebrate Christmas

‘We will not let mortars push Christians out. If we leave, we leave for the cemetery’

Christmas holiday lights hang from trees in the ancient quarter of Bab al-Sharqi in Damascus. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Christmas holiday lights hang from trees in the ancient quarter of Bab al-Sharqi in Damascus. Photograph: Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

 

Beleaguered Syrian Christians, who belong to the world’s most ancient Christian communities, are set to celebrate a fifth Christmas during a war that is ravaging their country and stealing their lives.

Just inside Bab al-Sharqi, the eastern gate of the Old City of Damascus, national guardsman Fuad Farha has erected a small nativity scene and decorated a tree with coloured bulbs and lights.

Farha speaks proudly of a party for 300 children from the area as Joseph Bashura, my driver, counts out the equivalent of €90 in Syrian bank notes to buy Santa hats for each child.

“We will not let mortars push Christians out,” says Farha, a Christian construction worker who has spent five years in the guard. “If we leave, we leave for the cemetery.”

Down the Roman-era “Street Called Straight” trod by St Paul, the Syriac Catholic Church has decorated its Christmas tree with photos of “martyrs” – Christian soldiers and civilians killed in the war.

Greater Damascus is home to some 400,000 Christians, now the largest single gathering in the country. Many, like Bashura, who is Armenian, have seen their homes destroyed in predominantly Christian quarters and moved into the Old City, although it is a favourite target for the mortar-slingers of the Army of Islam.

At the splendid, gleaming white Mariamiya monastery, which contains the largest Orthodox church in Damascus, Homs archbishop George Abu Zakhm is visiting.

“Christmas is a big celebration for Christians,” he says. “We want to change the whole atmosphere, do something for the young generation. We have 20 days of events for kids in Homs.”

The height of the celebrations took place yesterday with a performance by the 80-strong Orthodox choir. “All churches are planning events,” the archbishop says.

To the coast

Latakiya

The Old City of Homs is determined to celebrate its second Christmas since the May 2014 evacuation of Free Army and al-Qaeda Jabhat al-Nusra fighters.

Strings of Christmas lights hang across narrow streets. A triangle of green material representing a Christmas tree stands at a small square, where artisans are fashioning a full-scale model of the nativity scene using paper, cloth, sponge and wood retrieved from rubble to make mannequins. Al-Bustan restaurant has a decorated tree in its window.

Under renovation is the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Mary of the Holy Belt, built over an underground church dating to 50 AD. The small chapel where the belt of the Virgin was displayed before the war is now being used as a store for excess furniture from the church in readiness for Christmas services.

The venerated relic was hidden after armed men seized the Old City and it has not been returned.

The monastery where Dutch Jesuit priest Francis Ven der Lugt was executed by gunmen in April 2014 is also under renovation. The work has not disrupted afternoon classes for 100 children taught by volunteers, or preparations for Christmas.

The classes are meant to help children make up for school missed during the war – and provide them with psychological support, says Fr Magdy Seif, an Egyptian member of the order who studied at the Milltown Institute of theology and philosophy in Dublin.

“Our mission is child protection,” he says.

Smiling girls and boys greet him as they hurry to their nine classrooms. Parents come monthly to check on their children’s progress in French, English, Arabic, maths, crafts and other subjects.

“The children come from all communities – Christian, Muslim, and Alawite. Even Protestant,” Seif jokes.

He is particularly proud of the choir of 80 girls and boys who have prepared for the Christmas performance. He taps a little girl on shoulder as she brushes by: “She has a sweet voice.”

Deeply embedded

Since then Christians have suffered discrimination and displacement by warfare, as well as occupation of their cities, towns and villages by Sunni fundamentalist fighters.

Fundamentalists have killed and kidnapped Christians and sought to convert them to the militants’ puritan, obscurantist version of Islam, or exact taxes from those who refuse.

Syrians of all faiths seek peace in the new year. The November plan for an end to the conflict agreed in Vienna and endorsed by the UN Security Council has lit a small stub of a candle of hope that Syria’s ordeal could soon be over.

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