“Jesus’ wooden shed in the foreground and Herod’s palace in the background. Our place is near the Saviour’s cave, beside Him who was born, not in Herod’s palace. We are the people who are afraid, who are poor, who are cold, who are hungry. We are with our Syrian brothers who are suffering after long years of never-ending war.”
Fr. Hanna Jallouf, 66, Franciscan Syrian priest of the Custody of the Holy Land, thus described to SIR Christmas in Knayeh, Yacoubieh and Gidaideh, the Christian villages in the Orontes valley, symbolized by the Nativity Scene placed below the altar of St. Joseph’s Church in Knayed, where he serves as parish priest. It’ s a concrete way to embrace Pope Francis’ call to rediscover this “simple and admirable sign” that evokes “the great mystery of our faith” in a world that “is erasing Christian symbols.” He and his confrere Luai Bsharat are the only Christian religious left in these places. The area is that of Idlib, northern Syria, the last stronghold of the opponents of Syrian President Assad and Islamist terrorists from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Jihadist group affiliated with Al-Qaeda, heir to the notorious Jabhat Al Nusra. This is arguably the place where the final battle between President Assad’s army, backed by Russians and Iranians, and his armed opponents, many of them foreigners, is being fought. The Syrian government launched air raids to seize control of a highway connecting the capital Damascus with Aleppo, and the latter with Latakia, with Jihadist militant group Tahrir al-Sham firing back. Once again, civilians are paying the heaviest price: tens of thousands of Syrians – mostly women, elderly people and children – are fleeing, having abandoned their homes. Humanitarian assistance is hard to deliver and people’s living conditions grow worse by the day, also due to the cold temperatures and rising fuel prices, caused by international sanctions that impact the cost of essential goods such as medicine and foodstuffs. Today some 210 Christian families live in this warzone that extends across three villages in the Valley. Before the war broke out in 2011, it numbered a total of over 5000 inhabitants. “Today – said Father Hanna – only 700 of us still live here. Everybody else fled because of the war.
We hope to live Christmas with a sparkle of peacefulness. I hope so especially for the youngest ones who are paying the highest price of this war”.
Without lights but with the Light. It is precisely to the children that this year the parish priest has dedicated a special thought. “Christmas is their holy day”, said Father Hanna, “each one of them will receive a holy manger as a gift to bring back home. These are small handmade nativity scenes that will also be displayed in a small exhibition held inside the parish premises. We planned some parties in which we will also receive toys, sweets and clothing items. These simple gestures are very important here. It means reliving a glimpse of serenity, experiencing smiles, and rediscovering each other united in Jesus.”
“Those will be the only visible signs of our faith that we cannot express outside because it is forbidden. That’s why our churches have no crosses on the rooftops. There will be no Christmas lights to illuminate our Christmas. Not even a candle on the windowsill of our homes.”
Prohibitions will not prevent Christian families from gathering in the church. “Everyone will come together on December 24th at 5:00 p.m. for Christmas Mass and at 9:30 a.m. the next day”, pointed out Fr Hanna – “My confrere, Father Luai, will be celebrating in Yacoubieh on the 24th at 4 p.m. and on the 25th at 9 a.m. The faithful of Gidaideh will attend the Holy Mass in Knaye. Their villages have no church where they can celebrate.
In fact, many churches were turned into stables.”
The grotto and the Palace. Once again, this Christmas the choice is between the Grotto of the Holy Child and Herod’s Palace. “Our heart is heavy – confessed Father Hanna – in so many years of war we have seen people killed, kidnapped, wounded, houses destroyed… but we are strong in the hope that one day all this will end, that we will be freed by the only Saviour who is Christ. Christ is our anchor of salvation.
We are victims of a war that nobody wants.
We pray for peace in Syria, for all Syrians, for peace including inner peace, indispensable to endure the current difficulties.” Then a special prayer: “We will pray also for those of you in the Western world who are experiencing this war in an indirect way. We pray for all the victims of attacks on your territory”. “We will not chime bells, we will not turn on lights, but we will resonate in our Christmas Mass the message of hope of Christ, the One and Only we can trust”.
“We have seen so many sham saviours come and go – concludes Father Hannah – Jesus remains, and His Kingdom of Peace is forever. In Him also the suffering of the past few years finds meaning. We are in the land of Saint Paul who exhorts us to hope against all odds. Merry Christmas”.