Young volunteers from the churches of Damascus drove through the suburbs of the Syrian capital this week, carrying ornaments to decorate some of the first Christmas trees seen in former opposition bastions in seven years.
Once lit and decorated with tiny Santas, the trees in Eastern Ghouta looked like anything one would find on the streets of any European city. But these towns have suffered tremendous hardship during the seven-year conflict in Syria: ruled by Islamist militiamen that excommunicated Christian communities, besieged by government troops and then pounded to dust by the Russian Air Force, which ended Islamist rule last winter.
Many Christians are yet to return to the destroyed neighborhoods of Eastern Ghouta, where electricity blackouts are still common and where basic services, like running water and heating fuel, are still both expensive and irregular.
Few Syrians shed tears for the Army of Islam when it was uprooted from its bases 10 months ago, although early in the Syrian conflict, it was regarded as a moderate rebel group by western backers of the armed opposition.
Many among the Syrian opposition accuse its founder, Zahran Alloush, of abducting prominent human rights activist Razan Zeitouneh back in December 2013. She and her three colleagues of the Violation Documentations Center have not been heard from since.
Residents of Damascus equally abhorred mention of the Army of Islam, which for seven long years indiscriminately rained mortars on the Syrian capital, striking not at army positions but at schools, hospitals and civilian neighborhoods.
Under the Army of Islam, residents of Douma were prohibited from celebrating Christmas, just like the inhabitants of Idlib and Raqqa, the former capital of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Christmas celebrations are more visible in Damascus today than at any other time in the horrendous conflict. A total of eight Christmas trees have been set up, amidst high festivity. Christmas carols were recited at the Damascus Opera House in mid-December, in a spectacular show put on by the Choir of Joy, the musical arm of the Lady of Damascus Church.
“I cried after watching the show,” said Abeer Khoury, a 21-year old student at Damascus University. “I am of the so-called ‘war generation.’ I was 14 when this war started. I only attended Christmas celebrations as a child … never as an adult. I used to hear about them from my parents, but thought that I would never live through one in Damascus.”
In previous years, Christmas had become a rather solemn and low-key event, marked with Sunday Mass and private gatherings. Every Christmas, rumors spread throughout the city that churches were going to be bombed or raided during Sunday Mass.
“They would close the doors of the church,” recalled Hanna Elias, a shop owner in the Christian district of al-Qassa, “fearing an attack from Ghouta. We would pray with the sound of bombs landing all around us, either from Ghouta on our homes, or from the Syrian Army on Ghouta. I can still hear those sounds ringing in my ears. I am 62. I will never forget the fear we went through.”
During the years 2012-2018, Christmas trees had nearly disappeared from the ancient streets of Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi, mainly because of an electricity shortage throughout the city, which often led to 15-hour power cuts each day, making it inconceivable to light up trees when entire neighborhoods were lagging in darkness.
During the war years in the Damascus countryside, it was considered unsafe to celebrate Christmas with grand festivity, due to the proximity of these Christian neighborhoods to rebel-held areas in Eastern Ghouta. Christian quarters were badly hit by the conflict, both psychologically and physically, as many of their residents packed up and left, either to safer districts among the larger Muslim community, or to Lebanon.
Some were fleeing the military draft. Others now felt unsafe in a city that was ironically one of the first centers of Christianity, well before the birth of Islam.
A community halved
Before the year 2011, Christians were estimated at 1.8 million out of Syria’s 23 million residents. No census has been carried out since the war started, but rough and informal estimates claim that their community has been slashed in half – at a bare minimum. There is also no breakdown as to how many Christians were killed in the conflict.
It was very painful for them to leave their ancestral land, given that members of the Greek Orthodox community consider themselves the original inhabitants of Syria, having been there long before the Muslim conquest.
Everywhere they went, however, Syrian Christians were hearing stories of targeted assassinations and beheadings at the hands of jihadist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda or ISIS.
At least three prominent Christian clerics were kidnapped by armed militias and have not been heard of for more than six years. Two were abducted by foreign jihadists in April 2013 – Boulos Yazigi, the bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo, and Youhanna Ibrahim, his Syriac Orthodox counterpart.
Three months later, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio – an outspoken critic of the Syrian government’s wartime conduct and known for his support of the opposition – disappeared in Raqqa after seeking a meeting with the leader of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
Another priest, this time Catholic, was shot dead at his church in the village of al-Ghasaniyyeh in June 2013. That December, 13 nuns were abducted by Jabhat al-Nusra in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. Before taking the village, Nusra had tried to force its residents to convert to Islam.
At checkpoints manned by jihadist groups, Christians often hid their crosses and memorized verses of the Quran in order to pass unhindered. According to the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, 400 churches were destroyed in Syria since 2011 and he famously warned back in 2015 that the community as we knew it in Syria was on the verge of “extinction.”
That is now history, many hope. Although the security situation has improved tremendously in recent months, especially in Damascus, the war is not yet over. ISIS is still present in pockets across the eastern countryside of Deir ez-Zour and Albukamal, and it still thrives in Idlib, which is dominated by the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra.
Most of those jihadists who shot and killed Christians or ransacked and torched their churches are still present in the country. Some have blended into general society in the chaotic Syrian northeast, while others are believed to be parts of underground cells, which could infiltrate Damascus – or any spot in Syria, at some point in the future.
“Sadly, there are no names,” said Elias, referring to the fact that not a single perpetrator was identified. “There were mass attacks, with plenty of people involved. We don’t know who kidnapped and who pulled the trigger. And I don’t think we will ever find out.”