On Christmas Day, Michel Butros al-Jisri, one of the last Christians in the Syrian city of Idlib, did not attend the services, as Islamist rebels who control the area have long locked down the church. . Nor did he gather with friends and relatives to celebrate around a tree because nearly all of his fellow believers died or fled during Syria’s 10-year civil war.
Instead, al-Jisri said, he went to the city’s Christian cemetery, which is no longer in use, to sit among the graves of his ancestors and mark the day for himself. quietly way.
“Who am I going to celebrate the holiday with? The walls?” he asked. “I don’t want to celebrate if I’m alone.”
The 90-year-old al-Jisri, stooped and almost deaf but still quite healthy, is a living relic of one of many formerly vibrant Christian communities in the Middle East that appears to be on the verge of extinction.
Communities across the Middle East and North Africa – some with roots in the early days of Christianity – have struggled for decades with war, poverty and persecution. A 2019 UK government report found that Christians in Middle East and North Africa has fallen to less than 4 percent of the population from more than 20 percent a century ago.
The past decade has been particularly devastating as upheavals have brought Christians in parts of Iraq, Syria and beyond under the control of Islamist militants. They must obey the whims of their new rulers, who have banned their religious activities, seize their property and even choose them to death at times.
Over nine decades, al-Jisri has gone from being a member of the Christian community in Idlib easily assimilated into the social fabric of the city to one of only three known Christians still living there. .
He was born in 1931 in Idlib, a city surrounded by olive groves and farmland in northwestern Syria, one of four children, he said. His mother died when he was only 2 months old, his father soon remarried and had two more sons.
Al-Jisri’s family is Greek Orthodox, like most Christians in Idlib, and is worshiped at St. Mary’s Church, a stone chapel with a bell tower and many icons, built in 1886 near the city center. A National Evangelical Church was built some years later.
Consequences of the civil war in Syria
After a decade of fighting, many Syrians wonder if the country can ever come together again.
Members of his community worked as jewelers, doctors, lawyers and merchants, and even sold alcohol, although it was religiously forbidden, to their Muslim neighbors.
According to Fayez Qawsara, a historian from the area, at Easter and Christmas the priest opened his house to savvy Muslims and Christians. Father Ibrahim Farah, al-Jisri’s former priest, said a huge Christmas tree in the square near the church drew large crowds of Muslim and Christian children to receive gifts.
For decades, al-Jisri worked for the church as custodian of the cemetery, keeping it clean, fixing fences and organizing funerals. He will receive grieving families and make coffee for those who pay their respects.
Syria has been ruled for more than 50 years by the al-Assad family, and under both Hafez, who died in 2000, and his son, Bashar, who has been president of Syria ever since, violence between Religious communities are rare.
But that system, and the life al-Jisri has long known, fell apart after Syria’s civil war began in 2011, shaking the government’s power over vast swaths of territory. .
In 2015, Islamist rebels overran the city of Idlib. When they took control, they killed a Christian man, Elias al-Khal, and his son, Najib, who sold alcohol, al-Jisri said.
Soon after, they kidnapped Father Ibrahim and detained him for 19 days, the priest said. By the time he was released, the library and church archives had been looted, and most of the approximately 1,200 Christians who remained in the city until the incoming rebels fled or on the way out.
“The news spread easily,” al-Jisri said. “They put their families in the car and drove away.”
The new rulers of the city closed the church and banned the public display of Christian devotion, further fueling the exodus. Once the Christians were gone, the rebels took over their homes and shops.
“We used to see Idlib as a beautiful mosaic,” Father Ibrahim said by phone from Toronto, where he moved after fleeing Syria. “Now, it’s a complete mess.”
Christians make up about 10% of Syria’s 21 million people before the war began in 2011. Now, they make up about 5%, with less than 700,000 remaining, according to groups that track the persecution of the United States. Christians around the world.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Christians also began to leave that country, and their population fell to less than 500,000 in 2015 from 1.5 million in 2003.
The flight of Christians out of Idlib was particularly difficult, and by the end of 2015, Father Ibrahim said, only five Christians remained.
Two people have died since then.
One of the others is a woman who prefers to keep her life private. Another, 72-year-old Nabil Razzouq, is a retired widow with four adult children living elsewhere in Syria or abroad. He said he chose to stay in Idlib because the war had taken the Syrians’ time and he also didn’t want to lose his home.
“If I lost time and place, I would go crazy,” he said. “That’s why I’ve held on to this place.”
Idlib is the last province in Syria that is still mostly controlled by rebels, and more than a third of the 4.4 million people in the northwest of the country have fled there during the war or were taken there by the government. when they captured their towns.
Mr. al-Jisri said he had not entered the church, helped with the funeral or drank alcohol since before the rebels took over.
“Now, no one,” he said.
The members of the old church still paid him an honorary salary, which would put food on his table. He lives in a one-room house, where there is a single gas stove that serves as a kitchen, the mattress on the floor is the living room and his bedroom is a mattress against the wall.
He has a heater, but can’t get fuel. He has TV and radio but no electricity.
Above the cupboard where he kept his teacups hung faded pictures of deceased loved ones, crosses and icons of Jesus and Mary.
When guests drop by, he serves them tea or coffee in his small earthen courtyard, where calls to prayer from a nearby mosque ring throughout the day.
“We are alive, thank God,” he said. “We don’t owe anyone anything and nobody owes us anything.”
al-Jisri was never married and all but one of his siblings had died, he said. He assumes that his surviving brother lives in the United States, but they do not contact each other.
He has nieces and nephews that he would love to visit in Aleppo, about an hour’s drive away in normal times. But he didn’t make the trip for years, because it would require crossing a hostile front line between the rebels and the government.
So he spends his days wandering the city markets, chatting with neighbors or visiting friends – or the children of friends who have passed away.
It didn’t bother him that they were all Muslims.
“We are all brothers,” he said.
Some days, he walks to the cemetery where he has worked for many years, just to check it out. Once busy with families coming in and out, now deserted, sometimes he sat alone for hours by the tombstones.
But despite the collapse of his community, he said he never thought about leaving Syria.
“Why me?” he say. “I have friends that I love very much, no one bothers me and I don’t bother anyone.”
Churches in Idlib remain closed, although the Islamist group that controls the area, as part of its efforts to erase its more radical past, has allowed Christians to live in villages nearby continue to serve at their church.
But that hasn’t convinced al-Jisri’s congregation to return.
“I wish they would come back,” he said.
His best friends are pet pigeons that he keeps in a room attached to his house. As they flew around him in the courtyard whispering, he threw the bird seeds and sang to himself old Arabic songs about love and a country that never loved him back:
O treasure of the Levant, your love is in my mind,
The sweetest time I spent with you,
You said goodbye and promised me,
Don’t forget me, I won’t forget you,
No matter how many nights you’ve been gone.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/23/world/middleeast/syria-christians-idlib.html ‘Nobody’s Now’: Lamentation of One of the Last Christians in Syria