The façade of Saint Joseph church in Knayeh is bare, as it has been for the past eight years, since the militiamen of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham front – a jihadi militant group of Salafi ideology, affiliated to Al Qaida and heir to the infamous Jabhat Al Nusra front, gained control of the villages along the Orontes river. All rebel and terrorist groups have crossed this area before them: from ISIS to al-Nusra, engaged in the Syrian conflict and fighting against the regime of President Assad. The church bell has no cross and no external sign shows that it’s Christmas. There are no decorated Christmas trees or lights. “Nothing at all”. Father Hanna Jallouf is the Latin patriarch of Knayeh, the Syrian village not far from Idlib (on the border between Syria and Turkey), the last stronghold of anti-Assad rebels. A Syrian Franciscan Father of the Custody of the Holy Land, Father Hanna, 66, has remained here to minister to the small local Christian community with his confrere Louai Bsharat. All priests and members of the clergy have fled after many churches and places of worship had been destroyed or burned down.
“Like lambs among the wolves.” “We are the only two friars who have remained in two convents (Knayeh and Yacoubieh) and we do everything possible to minister to the needs of the Christian population”, Father Hanna told SIR. Christmas is imminent and “there is only a manger scene inside the church, placed beneath the altar, entirely lit as its testimony. It’s all we were allowed to do.”
“To us the Nativity scene means that we are not alone and that Christ comes for our Salvation.”
For Father Hanna it’s important to reread a passage from the letter that he and Father Bsharat have written to Pope Francis a few weeks ago: “Christians in this land are like lambs among the wolves. The fundamentalists have devastated our cemeteries, they have prevented us from celebrating liturgies outside the church, stripping us of the external signs of our faith: crosses, bells, statues as well as our religious habit. In spite of everything we feel God’s hand above us.” “Nothing more than martyrdom can mark the Christian way of participating in humanity’s history of salvation”; was the Pope’s reply.
“The Pope’s words give us the strength to live inside this reality of mud – the priest said -. We try to have peace of mind, rooted in the awareness that we are living where Christianity originated – only 40km away from Antioch, the place where the disciples of Jesus Christ were first called Christians – we are the heirs of that community. We feel the Lord is near us.”
Few but united. Living one’s faith in the jihadi stronghold in Idlib’s province “is not easy, especially during Christmas”, added the priest who was abducted by militiamen of the Jahbat Al-Nusra front with 16 parishioners in 2014 and released a few days later. “We are only allowed to celebrate inside the church, where we placed the Nativity scene. Outside we have even been forbidden to decorate the trees, or adorn with lights or flowers. We have been preparing for Christmas with the Novena, where there is always large participation. Boys and girls have already received their Christmas presents, sweets, toys and clothing times. It was a way to distract them from the surrounding hostile atmosphere.” They are afraid of being attacked but they are also very brave and cautious. For this reason, pointed out Father Jallouf, “the liturgies of December 24, 25 and 26 will be celebrated during morning hours. Our youths will be stationed in the churchyard to ensure public safety and check the entrance. Once the Mass is begun the gate will be closed until the end of the services.” For the past four years, in villages along the Orontes river like Knayeh, local Christians have been celebrating “Christmas and Easter together, Catholics, Greek-Orthodox and Armenians. It’s a critical situation and our suffering has united us even more.”
“When the Church is mistreated and persecuted she reacts with unity”
the Franciscan priest said with a touch of pride. Christmas is also a time of encounter and exchange of Christmas greetings “but only among ourselves because here the current mentality prevents Muslims from extending Christmas wishes to Christians. We are governed by the extremist Sharia rule of the Jihadis which is not the same as that of Islam.”
Shadows hovering upon the future. The future seems to bode nothing good. “In the past months – said the Franciscan Father – jihadi militiamen have increased their armaments and are determined to fight the regime to defend their positions here on the ground. We do not know what the outcome will be.” Even leaving these valleys is difficult. “It takes two days to travel to Aleppo from here by car, while it used to be a one-hour-and-a-half journey. Now we must travel all the way up to the border with Turkey, reach the areas under Kurdish control, pass near the Euphrates river and then travel all the way down to Aleppo for over 500km amidst all sorts of dangers, roadblocks and check points. It’s horrible.”
The only road. The only road left is “The path indicated by Christmas”, said Father Hanna. “The birth of Jesus gives us courage and illuminates our way made of sorrow and dangers. It leads to Salvation.
We are living inside a large cage with no way out. But as small birds we continue singing the beauty of God.
Our hope is that Christmas may enlarge the grill of this cage and bring us peace, freedom and human rights for all. We pray for this intention in the certainty that the Lord listens to the cry of those who are suffering.”