For Christians in Syria, Christmas in 2020 was lacklustre. The brightly coloured decorations on churches and houses that once would attract thousands to Christian neighbourhoods in order to take part in the festivities are scarce. Prices for necessary everyday goods are high, the US occupation of Syria’s oil and gas resources, the looting of wheat, oil and cotton in the north-east of the country, financial and economic sanctions by the EU and the US are exacerbating the people’s misery.
Christmas 2020 – On the tracks of the Syrian Christians
Bassir, Deraa province. In 2020, Syria’s largest Christmas tree was already erected in mid-December in the village of Bassir, south of Damascus. The Christian village, located south of Damascus in the province of Deraa, was first mentioned in 8 BC. Later on, Bassir became a military base for the Romans with 5,000 soldiers in order to protect the transport routes from south and east to the Mediterranean and Rome.
Before the war in 2011, around 3,700 people lived in Bassir, today there are still about 2,000 left. Bassir and the surrounding villages were largely spared from the fighting. The inhabitants are farmers providing Damascus with its daily bread and vegetables. Before the war, the harvests from Bassir were exported to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and as far as the Gulf States. But for ten years, the borders have been closed and many workers and especially the young men have left Syria.
By putting up the Christmas tree, Christmas was intended to be celebrated with the inhabitants of the surrounding Muslim villages, despite all the problems. The people are linked through work, and even the war would not destroy their relationships. Somehow, however, the locally conceived celebration then turned into a big media event celebrated with celebrities from Damascus and spiritual dignitaries of all religions in a blaze of publicity, and the Christmas tree turned into the “tree of home”.
Thousands of people crowded around Bassir church, local notables lined up to welcome the guests. The church was decorated with glittering lights, life-size dolls in the various provincial costumes and a “Message from Syria” to the world. “What is a Christmas tree but the marvellous demonstration of the greatest Son of Syria, our Lord Jesus Christ,” it said. It invited everyone to remember that Syria is a second home for all people: “For those who are here and those who are gone, those who are near and those who are far away, murderers and martyrs, residents and refugees, friends and enemies.”
As early winter darkness fell, fireworks were displayed and the tree – draped all over with fairy lights – was ceremoniously lit. Beyond the crowd, having a cup of tea in the simple house of a farming family in a familiar circle, people would later say that they wished that all the money for the fireworks and for the big tree, for the festivities and the modern tilt camera including drone that transmitted the events on screens – that all the money had been distributed to families, it would have helped quite a few.
A winter without electricity and heating oil
“Do you in Europe actually know what it’s like to live without electricity? Without heating oil in winter, without gas for cooking? When bread is getting more and more expensive, as do fruits and vegetables, but people have less and less money? Before the war and the economic crisis, some people here earned the equivalent of 1,500 US dollars; today they have 35 US dollars, or the equivalent of around 90,000 Syrian pounds. If someone wants to feed his family of five, what can he buy to eat? The simplest meal, felafel with vegetables and bread, costs 500 Syrian pounds. If the family eats this for breakfast, lunch and dinner, that’s 2,500 pounds per meal, 7,500 pounds per day. There are 30 days in a month, so if you calculate 30 times 7,500 pounds, a family has to spend 225,000 pounds a month just on felafel. Without anything to drink, without soap or washing powder, without oil or anything else. But the family only has 90,000 pounds. And surely, they will have children who go to school or study, who need books, internet access and so on. What if someone in the family gets sick and needs expensive medication? Which may not even be available then!”
Father Zehri Ghazal has talked himself into a rage. His manner of speaking is in complete contrast to his appearance and his otherwise calm, humorous manner. The conversation between him and the author focuses on the miserable economic situation in Syria and the question of how people can survive. What can the Church do, how could Europe help? And finally, what about Christmas this year? How will the Syrian Christians celebrate?
This year’s Christmas will be sad, says Father Zehri: “Father Christmas is naked, he has no presents, everything has been confiscated at the border,” he says, still laughing. “How are we supposed to have hope in a land without electricity, without internet, without water, without gas, without bread, without petrol! This year 2020 has been the worst year, not only for us, for the whole world,” he adds and becomes serious. “You must know that there is simply nothing we can do here, in this situation. Two people from our church committed suicide because they were not able to provide their children with food. Even we, as a church, were not able to help them! There is too much of a burden on people.”
Since the beginning of the EU sanctions against Syria in 2011, the money of the Syrian churches has been kept in Lebanese banks, and was then brought to Syria. With Lebanon in an economic crisis and Lebanese banks freezing all payments, even from accounts in foreign currency, the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate, also in charge of its Um Al Zennar Church in the old city of Homs, can no longer pay salaries except in Syrian pounds. Since the beginning of the US sanctions, the so-called Caesar Act, the Syrian pound has been losing more and more ground against the dollar, and the money is melting away in the people’ s pockets. The situation is no different for the Lebanese.
Humanitarian aid distributed to needy people in Syria by international and UN organisations is only meant to keep people from fleeing to Europe, Ghazal says. The churchman is sure that the only thing that interests is that no more refugees from Syria flow into Europe: “But in view of the hopeless situation in our country and the economic blockade with which Europe and the USA are strangling us, many families no longer feel able to keep on living here and so, they will do anything to get to Belgium or Germany or Sweden. They take all their money, sell what they can sell and use the money to send their children abroad to study and build a better future. Will these young people return later? The answer is no. Why should they return to a country without electricity, without heating oil, without petrol, and in addition, to a country where they won’t find work because their parents don’t have work anymore neither? Why should they return?”
Silence fills the room until someone cautiously remarks that it is about the motherland, about one’s own roots, about the origin of the Christians in general, who had been shaping Bilad al-Sham, the Promised Land, long before the Muslims. With the Christians disappearing from Iraq and Palestine, they might not leave Syria as well.
“We Christians were once five per cent of the Syrian population, which numbered 23 million before the war,” says Father Zehri. “But what do we see when we look to Aleppo, to Jazeera, where there are almost no Christians left. Idlib as well and here, in the old city of Homs, before the war we counted 75,000 Christians, today there are maybe 5,000 left!” If things continue like this, if parents send their children abroad who then will not return, it will not take 30 years until there are no Christians left in Syria, he says. Indeed, he adds after a short pause, if there was an agreement between the West and Syria, Christians might decide to stay or even return to their homeland. But he suspects that Europe wouldn’t want that at all: “Your government also wants the Christians, the young, well-educated people, to leave Syria,” he says frankly. It is a political decision.
“The common people are suffering, why?”
The situation of Christians in Syria is not good. Like all Syrians, they are suffering from the lack of necessities and immense price increases. In addition, they must observe their presence in Syria melt away almost like ice in the sun. Christians have no weapons to defend their existence in Syria. Christians only had the word, the writing and a pen, says Father Taher Jussif, who leads the parish of Saint George in Maaloula. In view of the hatred experienced by Christians, monasteries, churches and almost all the places invaded by the “Islamic State”, it is unlikely that Christians in Syria will have a future. Added to this is the silence of the world that has accompanied this devastation.
Maaloula lies hidden between high cliffs at an altitude of 1,500 metres between Damascus and Homs and had been repeatedly attacked, occupied and looted by armed Islamists between 2013 and 2015; the churches were set on fire. The faces on pictures and icons were cut up, smashed or otherwise defaced. The dogmatic Islamic ban on images was the reason for the destruction. The persons and saints venerated by Christians in Syria are demons of evil for jihadists.
Jussif, called simply “Abuna Taher” by the people of Maaloula, is a man of action and does not wait long before starting something. By volunteers and restoration painters from Maaloula, the final renovation works are being completed before Christmas; the church is resembling a large studio. The colourful murals were freshened up, old icons were restored and hung up. The priest wants to keep the icons destroyed by the jihadists during the occupation of Maaloula in a museum. No one should forget what happened.
The priest only interrupts his work in the church to have lunch with guests or to rehearse songs and chorales for the Christmas service with the children of Maaloula which he accompanies on the flute. Christmas fills him with hope despite all the difficulties, he says. “Christmas means life and light, then we are really close to Jesus Christ.” The Christmas light, the life can change people’s way of thinking, he is convinced. For “Abuna Taher”, Christians in Europe are very far from their reality, the Christian reality in Syria, he says. The only message he wants to send them, he says, is very simple: “Don’t help us. Period.”
This winter, life is particularly hard, says Joseph Saadi. The dentist comes from Maaloula and has also been mayor since the liberation from armed jihadists in 2015. Together with the city council chairman Ibrahim al-Shaer and a dozen curious people, Saadi is watching the Christmas tree being erected. “If we are lucky, the generator of St. George’s Church will give us electricity on Christmas Eve so we can light the Christmas tree,” says Saadi, rubbing his cold hands. Before the war, there was always electricity, says al-Shaer. The houses, churches and monasteries of Maaloula would have lit up the whole Christmas night. This year, he says, people did without decorations because there was too little electricity and most of them had no money to spend on Christmas decorations.
Because of the severe economic crisis and the rapid decline of the Syrian currency, everything is so expensive that many “have not been able to eat meat for a long time”, Saadi continues. Even he, as a dentist, no longer earns enough to buy everything his family has been used to or even needs. “People just cannot afford dental treatments anymore,” so he lacks income. He wonders why Europe has imposed an economic blockade on Syria, thus also punishing the neighbouring states of Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon: “If it wasn’t for that and if we could use our oil again, we could rebuild our country,” Saadi is sure. “The ordinary people are suffering, old and young, why?”
The Christians of the desert
The “Christians of the desert” are considered to be particularly rooted, but the war has blown them to the winds as well. In Tadmur, the small town next to Palmyra, there were only a few hundred Christians. In 2015, with the advance of IS, they fled to Homs; no one has returned to this day. The small church lies destroyed.
In the dry, stony soil of Qaryatayn, the “Christians of the desert” have planted vines and fruit trees for decades. Flocks of sheep and goats moved across the plains, which in the winter months are turned into green pastures by the rain. 1,500 Christians lived in the village of Qaryatayn, which is about 100 km east of Homs. In 2015, the IS took the place, with the support of Muslims living there. They destroyed the Deir Mar Elian monastery located in the west of the village. They kidnapped 260 Christian men, women and children. Some young women were taken all the way to Raqqa. The houses of the Christians in Qaryatayn had previously been marked by Muslim neighbours with an “N”, the initial letter of Naseri, which means Christians.
“We were one with the Muslims,” says a woman who does not want to read her name in the newspaper. She and her two sisters were born in Qaryatayn, and all three have worked as teachers in the village’s primary schools all their lives. In 2015, they were among the 260 Christians who were abducted; the “N” with which the house had been marked can still be seen on the wall surrounding their house. By negotiations the hostages were released six months later. In 2019, the sisters returned to Qaryatayn. Only six of the once 1,500 Christians returned to Qaryatayn. Most of them were afraid, the sisters say. People sold their houses, many left Syria to find a better future in another country. That would be out of the question for them, the women laugh, they are at home in Qaryatayn.
They will spend Christmas watching television. Seeing the colourful decorations in Damascus they could listen to the church service and celebrate with each other that they are still alive. And next year, hopefully and God willing, they could celebrate Christmas together again in Qaryatayn. •
(Translation Current Concerns)
ef. Independent journalist Karin Leukefeld was born in 1954 in Stuttgart and has studied ethnology, islamology and political sciences. She has been reporting from the Extended Middle East for daily and weekly journals as well as German state sponsored radio programmes since the year 2000. She was accredited in Syria in 2010 and has been reporting on the Syria conflict since then. Since the beginning of the war in 2011 she moves back and forth between Damasucs, Beirut, other places in the Arab world and her hometown Bonn. She has published several books, such as “Syrien zwischen Schatten und Licht – Geschichte und Geschichten von 1916-2016. Menschen erzählen von ihrem zerrissenen Land” (Syria Between Light and Shadow – History and Stories 1916–2016. People Narrate about their War-torn Country.) (2016, Rotpunkt edition Zurich); “Flächenbrand Syrien, Irak, die Arabische Welt und der Islamische Staat” (Surface Fire Syria, Iraq, the Arab World and the Islamic State.) (2015, 3rd edition 2017, PapyRossa edition, Cologne). Her new book will be released soon: “Im Auge des Orkans: Syrien, der Nahe Osten und die Entstehung einer neuen Weltordnung” (In the Eye of the Hurricane: Syria, the Middle East and the Rise of a New World Order (2021, PapyRossa edition, Cologne).
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