No bells toll, no decorations… The remaining Christians in Idlib are deprived of celebrating their feasts
A new year is to be added to the previous ten years during which the feasts passed by the remaining Christians in Idlib silently with no joy, no decorations, and no ringing bells.
A new year is to be added to the previous ten years during which the feasts passed by the remaining Christians in Idlib silently with no joy, no decorations, and no ringing bells because the celebration of Easter in public is considered a “violation of Islamic law,” according to “Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham” (formerly the Al-Nusra Front) that is still extending its control on the region of Idlib.
According to local sources, the number of Christians today in Idlib and its countryside does not exceed 200 people, most of whom are elderly, compared to more than 10,000 people before 2011. Most of them belong to the Greek Orthodox sect and are distributed in Jisr Al-Shughur and the villages of Al-Qunya, Al-Yaqubiyyah, Al-Jadida, Haluz, and Al-Ghassaniya.
'Shedding our blood, seizing our wealth, and offending honor are lawful and permissible for them'
Nothing indicates the arrival of Easter at Umm Elias’ house except for a low-volume TV live broadcasting the feast celebrations throughout Syria.
Although the weather outside is sunny and warm, the sixty-year-old lady carefully closes the door and windows of her house and goes to her bedroom to take out a large box from under her bed, in which she has collected everything that indicates that they are a Christian family.
The family Gospel, and many icons and rosaries, were hidden at the bottom of the box… Before Idlib’s occupation, these sacred icons were usually hung on the walls of the house, and next to them were several photo albums. Umm Elias turns them over carefully and tells Al Mayadeen English, “This is my son Elias in his first communion, and this is my daughter Jocelyn on Palm Sunday, holding her candle that I’ve decorated with my own hands, and here we are with my husband's family in front of the church after the Easter service.”
Reflecting on how Christian women of Idlib governorate spend Easter holidays, instead of practicing their usual rituals that begin with prayer, she said sadly, “Look around you... Are there still churches? All of them were destroyed, looted, and exploited, such as the Virgin Mary Church, which was turned into a Sharia institute for Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham, and there is another church that is used as a headquarters for the White Helmets.”
What aches the elderly woman the most is the dispersal of the family, as she explains, “Today, every one of my children is in a different country; they are young and the future lies ahead of them. As for me, I preferred to stay here with my husband. We could not leave everything and just go."
Umm Elias recalled how she used to spend her time making cakes and Maamoul stuffed with nuts and dates, and how she used to color eggs with her grandchildren. She said, “This is how it used to be, but today there is not a single store in all of Idlib or its countryside that sells such things. Now, shedding our blood, seizing our wealth, and offending honor are lawful and permissible for them."
Umm Elias gets traumatized every time she recalls what happened in 2019 to the teacher from the town of Al-Yaqubiyyah Susan Krikor, who was sixty years old when she was kidnapped, raped, and then killed, and had her gold jewelry stolen.
'I hope to meet my children again before I die'
Abu Shadi saluted his neighbor Abu Michel, saying, “Christ has risen.” Abu Michel responds: “Indeed, he has risen.” Abu Shadi does not hide his intense fear of being overheard by the Chechen, Turkestan, and Uzbek fighters who are around him, and he tells Al Mayadeen English, “We are only worth a bullet... and the charge is polytheism." Abu Michel interrupts and adds, “Even without doing anything, just passing through the streets and markets of Idlib near the fighters of Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham, especially the foreign members, exposes us to defamatory and discriminatory phrases such as “infidel”, “worshipper of the cross,” and other different types of offenses.
The 70-year-old man asks himself daily, “Is anyone thinking about us... Is there anyone who knows how we are living?” He pauses and continues to say, “They said on TV that they had opened St. Anna's Church for us, but it was nothing but a cheap false show, and an attempt to solicit support from the West."
The retired engineer takes a handkerchief out of his pocket, which is the only souvenir left from his daughter who traveled to France. He wipes his tears and points to the mountains stretching before his eyes, and says, “This is Latakia, and we’re not too far from it. There are my relatives and my son and his family. I hope we can meet even just for once before I die."
'Christian properties are confiscated and distributed to foreign fighters'
“There are Muslims who deserve help more than you.” This is what the responsible for relief supplies in Idlib said to Abu Ibrahim who used to return home empty-handed. Several human associations were expressing the same reaction. “They fear the Islamic factions if Christian families receive foodstuff packages,” asserted Abu Ibrahim. The former olive oil salesman couldn’t imagine he would spend the morning of Easter Sunday moving between associations, trying to register for aid, in order to cope with the difficult economic conditions. “For many years, I was deprived of getting into the Easter spirit, with no family gathering, no joy, except the moment I talk to my children abroad. As for my grandchildren, I’ve never seen them in person."
Abu Ibrahim’s property was looted like all other Christians in Idlib. The so-called “Christian Property Office” confiscated all of them and distributed them to foreign fighters. He kept only a plot of land where he spends most of his time working, although he only gets 40% of his crop production. Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham forced him to sign a usufruct agreement.
“I am the son of the land, and I cannot stay away from it. They did not allow the Christians who fled for their lives to claim their lands, either under the pretext that they are in Europe or are loyal to the government. As for the rest of us, they forced us to sign an agreement stipulating that Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham obtain 60 percent of the production, although the owner of the land has to take sole responsibility for all expenses throughout the year.”
Abu Ibrahim knew that it was a losing equation, but he ventured to accept it so as not to lose his source of livelihood and protect the inheritance of his family, which he believes will be bequeathed to his children and grandchildren… no matter how long it takes.