By Ann Marie Foley - 27 December, 2018
The local Church in Syria reports that Christians have fallen in number from some 2.5 million to around 700,000 in the last few years. The war has been going on since 2011 and is seldom headline news around the world anymore. The people still face destruction, lack of food and medicines and continuing humanitarian crisis, and yet they are celebrating Christmas.
Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN) has reported that in Syria there is no place for the usual consumerist frenzy, so the lights of the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib have once more become a sign of salvation. The charity, which works with people in Syria, stated that many families there are in makeshift shelters, just like the Holy Family in Bethlehem.
In the small town of Marmarita, in the region of Syria known as the Valley of the Christians, there are still thousands of refugees from the war. One family, Elias Ghattas and Lina Salloum, say that Christmas is not the same as they grieve the loss of family members. They dream of the day when their son, who was called up to the army, will return home for good.
A volunteer in the Saint Peter’s Centre, run by the Melkite Catholic Church in Marmarita, where Elias and Lina receive help, explained that for the first few Christmases after the outbreak of the war it was impossible for people to celebrate while people around them were being killed.
Volunteer Majd Jallhoum has been a refugee for the past seven years, and said that when her family arrived in the Valley of the Christians they saw that people were still celebrating Christmas by putting up Christmas trees and lights.
“Together with my family, I went back to celebrating the Nativity of Jesus,” she told ACN. “It’s still not the same as the way we used to celebrate in Homs, where it was much more joyful, and where we had a great big Christmas tree in the central square in Old Homs and celebrated with fireworks.”
Father Walid Iskandafy, parish priest and director of the Saint Peter’s Centre, said that refugees who have been unable to celebrate Christmas for years are now being taken into the joy of those around them. He explained that they celebrate Christmas in a similar way to other parts of Syria and the Middle East.
“They put up the Christmas crib and Christmas tree in their homes, and the families all try to gather together to celebrate these days – parents, uncles and aunts, cousins, grandparents. They all go together to Midnight Mass and Christmas Day Mass, and they wish each other a happy Christmas, and also their friends and neighbours. They visit each other’s houses and share the typical Christmas sweets and pastries.”
In the city of Homs the Christian community is concentrated in Old Homs, which was badly damaged by the fighting, particularly from 2012 to 2014. Now, in the middle of the rubble, homes and churches are being repaired and rebuilt, bit by bit.
It is a special joy for families to once again be celebrating Christmas in their own recently rebuilt homes. While some of the trimmings like the Christmas tree are too expensive because of inflation and an economic crisis, families are glad just to be together.
Many will attend Midnight Mass in the Melkite Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace, which has also been rebuilt and inaugurated with the support of ACN. In the cathedral, Melkite Catholic Archbishop Jean-Abdo Arbach has extended Christmas greetings: “We wish for peace in Syria and in all your countries. I pray to God for peace throughout the world, and for the war to end here. I wish that all men would love one another, because if we love one another, there will be peace. Happy Christmas and a happy New Year!”
Fides News Agency has reported from Damascus that this year the young people started meeting after eight years of violence that had prevented them from getting together. They were asked to prepare the Christmas crib in the Cathedral of Damascus. People were surprised when they placed a nativity scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus on the altar without a roof or stable.
The young people explained that the crib without a roof represents the 13,000,000 Syrian refugees who are homeless and have no roof of their own. The child Jesus is one of them, they said, and they wanted to show solidarity with them.