“We thank the Lord for being alive.” The voice of Father Hanna Jallouf, 66, Syrian Franciscan Father from the Custody of the Holy Land, is the voice of the Christians living in the villages of Knayeh, Yacoubieh and Gidaideh, located in the area of Idlib, in the north of Syria, the last stronghold of the opponents of Syrian President Assad and of Islamist terrorists. Here, not far from the Turkish border, tens of thousands of fighters, even foreigners, from the front of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, – a Salafist jihadist militant group, affiliated to Al-Qaeda, heir to the group previously known as Jabhat Al Nusra – have joined forces in the war years, determined not to surrender to the Syrian regular army and its Russian and Iranian allies. In the past days there was talk of an imminent attack aimed at the reconquest of the jihadist stronghold, which was called off after the Sochi Summit, on the Black Sea, during which Russian President Putin and the Turkish leader Erdogan reached a deal to create a demilitarized zone around this disputed area. The agreement entails “the withdrawal of all radical fighters” from Idlib, thus averting a humanitarian crisis of vast proportions since that area is also home to two and a half million Syrians, most of them internally displaced.
Shared suffering. The agreement brought a sigh of relief to Father Hanna, and his confrere Father Luai Bsharat, the only Christian religious left in Knayeh and Yacoubieh, in the convents of St Joseph and Our Lady of Fatima. The threat of a resurgence of armed conflict has been avoided for now, but problems on the ground remain along with “increasingly harsher living conditions as the tension rises”.’
“We don’t know what the outcome will be – said Father Hanna, who is also the Latin parish priest at Knayeh – the rebels do not intend to surrender or withdraw. If they did, all of us living here – Muslims and Christians alike – would benefit from it. Even our Muslim brothers suffer greatly. They are forced to go to the mosque and to follow practices that are only in the minds of these fanatics.”
Christian victims of abduction and murders. For their part, the Christians of Knayeh and Yacoubieh are holed up in their homes in a state of terror. “Our already poor communities are living in a state of unbearable fear – the priest said -. The arrival of humanitarian aids is discontinuous and now kidnappings have begun. We do not know the perpetrators of these crimes, whether they are simple criminals or militia members who control the area. A few days ago our lawyer was kidnapped and the family had to shell out about $ 50,000 for his release. A huge sum.” Father Hanna was also a victim of abduction: he was taken by militiamen of the Jahbat Al-Nusra front, in October 2014, along with 16 parishioners. “I was brought back to my convent in Knayeh after several days”, he recalled.
“They wanted to force us to convert and seize the convent. But we remained firm in our faith and we returned home stronger and more motivated than ever.”
Now the abductions escalated into summary executions and murders: “On September 19 – said Father Hanna – a man who had always been close to our parish, was killed. His only crime was that of helping Christians.” The local community is scared, people are afraid of going out of their homes. “Nobody goes out to farm their land. They feel safer at home.” But fears are temporarily overcome to attend Mass. “Every day at least 50-60 people come to church. On Sundays there are many more because they arrive from neighbouring villages. There are approximately 1,100 Christians living in the three villages – explained Father Hanna – including Christians of Latin rite, Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox .”
Years of suffering. “We have been living this way since 2011, since the outbreak of the war. All the rebel and terrorists groups have passed by here, from Isis up to al-Nusra and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – the Franciscan father pointed out -. All the priests and the religious living here have left or have fled. Many Armenian and Greek-Orthodox churches and places of worship have been destroyed or burned down, including our convent in Ghassanie. Only the two of us are still left, two friars in two convents. We try to give material and spiritual assistance to local Christians. Life is difficult, we have almost nothing, and the prices of basic commodities are unaffordable. We have no electricity or running water.”
“Al Nusra militiamen seized our lands, including convent property. They drove Christians out of their homes to give shelter to their refugees and their fighters.”
Aid to local Christians is provided by the Custody of the Holy Land and its NGO “Ats Pro Terra Sancta”: “Every month – said Fr Hanna – we manage to give our families – some 260 families – basic necessities such as medicine and milk, in addition to vouchers to purchase fuel for electricity and heating, clothing items and school books. We also organized a service to bring children to school. Schools only provide support for studying the Quran, Arabic, English and Math. We supply our pupils with other school materials but unbeknownst to fundamentalist groups who control the area. If they were to know about this we would be in trouble.”
Testimony and martyrdom. In the Lion’s den of the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, a tiny community of 1000 Christian faithful lives out and bears witness to their faith, despite severe restrictions. “Our religious celebrations are tolerated only if they take place inside the church, but it is forbidden to expose crosses, statues of saints, sacred images, or ring church bells”, explained the parish priest. He said: “Two months ago I was summoned by the religious Court where I was told I could no longer wear the monk’s habit as it is a religious sign indicating the Christian faith. So we put the habit in a suitcase. We now wear only in permitted areas.”
Father Hanna is perfectly aware that this is the price to be paid by those “who have decided to remain with our people. We stand firm in our faith and with our community. This is where Christianity was born, this is where we have our roots. Saint Paul walked on the road that connected Apamea to Antioch, 500 meters from Knayeh.
Our message to fundamentalists is: we are Christians and we will remain Christian until our death.”
This is where our forefathers were born and where they died. And we shall do the same.” “The situation is tragic – concluded Father Jallouf – but we continue to pray and every day we feel the hand of God that watches over us. We pray for peace in Syria, we pray that this useless massacre may end.
We are afraid of the future, but in suffering and pain we are living a time of grace.”