Christians Flee the Land Where the Word Began

  • Written by:

By The Daily Telegraph
IZRAA: Artillery shook St Elias’s Church as the priest reached the end of the Lord’s Prayer.
The small congregation kept their eyes on the pulpit, kneeling when required and trying to ignore the regular thuds that rattled the stained glass windows above them.

Home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Syrian agricultural town of Izraa has withstood the comings and goings of empires over the centuries.

But as the country’s civil war creeps closer, it is threatening to force the town’s Christians into permanent exile, never to return, they fear. “I have been coming to this church since I was born,” said Afaf Azam, 52. “But now the situation is very bad. Everyone is afraid. Jihadists control villages around us.”

A Canaanite city mentioned in the Bible, Izraa has lived through Persian and Arab rule. St Elias’s Church was built in 542AD – 28 years before the birth of the Prophet Mohammed in Mecca.

During the past four years of Syria’s war, its Christian population has largely stayed put, despite the war destroying much of the surrounding province of Deraa.

But in the past two weeks, men from the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups have captured the nearby towns of Nawa and al-Sheikh Maskin, bringing the front line to less than two miles away. They are now trying to assault Izraa.

Some of the rebels were vetted by the CIA as “moderate Muslims” and subsequently trained and armed in Jordan, as part of a US-led programme to bolster non-sectarian opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. But experience has rendered such distinctions irrelevant to Izraa’s Christians. In Syria – and on this front line – the “moderates” continue to work in alliance with al-Nusra. And the conquest of other Christian villages by the opposition has shown that more moderate factions frequently do little to stop the jihadists imposing their will.

“It’s simple,” said Father Elias Hanout, 38, who led the prayers at the service. “If the West wants Syria to remain a country for Christian people, then help us to stay here; stop arming terrorists.”

The pews in St Elias’s were sparsely occupied, with the choir missing its tenors and altos. Mrs Azam, who led the hymns, was reluctant to acknowledge the exodus at first, saying the singers were absent “because of work”. But as the tempo of the falling shells increased outside, she admitted: “People from here are leaving. Many are applying to emigrate.”

According to the Christian charity Open Doors, 700,000 of the faithful have fled Syria, which equates to 40 per cent of the country’s pre-war Christian population.

Syria’s Christian leaders warn of an exodus on the scale of Iraq, where the 1.5 million-strong community that lived there before the first Gulf conflict is now down to as little as a tenth of its former size.

The threat to towns such as Izraa will be uppermost in the mind of the Pope during his visit to Turkey, which begins next Friday, amid warnings from Christian leaders that their religion might soon lose its foothold in the region where it was born.

Looking around his 1,500-year-old church, Mr Hanout warned: “In this land the Word started. And if you delete the Word here, then Christianity across the world will have no future.”

Evidence of the Church’s heritage is everywhere in Izraa’s narrow streets. Across from St Elias’s, lies the chapel of St George, an octagonal stone building said to be one of the oldest churches in the world. Dating to AD 515, it was originally converted from a pagan temple. An inscription on its lintel reads: “Hymns of cherubs replaced sacrifices offered to idols and God settles here in peace, where people used to anger him.”

Today, Izraa remains a mixed town of Christians and Muslims. In early 2011, when the uprising in Syria was defined by popular protests rather than war, a small number of Christians had welcomed the calls for regime change. That changed when the Islamists began to dominate the rebel ranks. “Nobody wants these men to advance,” said one resident, who asked not to be named. “They are frightened of their town being overrun by Islamists.”

Instead, Izraa’s Christians have sought solace in the government’s defences, and increasingly blame the West for their suffering.

Mrs Azam said: “When evil comes you have to defend your country. We love our government, just as we love our country.”

The picture in Izraa is one repeated across other Christian pockets of Syria. Christian homes in Deir Ezzour, Raqqa, and in Hassakeh, home to the Syriac Christians, the oldest denomination on earth, are all devoid of their inhabitants. From Homs too, a major Christian stronghold, many have left.

Some Christians initially remained in the town of Ghassaniyeh in northern Latakia province when it first fell to the rebels in mid-2012. A few weeks later, Islamist extremists took control of the terrain. Christian men were kidnapped, captured or forced to flee. They desecrated the church, ransacked homes and murdered the priest.

Even in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter in the old city of Damascus, residents told The Sunday Telegraph they were looking to leave.

Eva Astefan, 43, said she applied to the United Nations for asylum after her 14-year-old daughter, Adel, was shot and killed by a rebel sniper in 2012. The family had been driving back to Damascus after attending the Feast of the Holy Cross in nearby Maaloula, when a hail of bullets pierced their vehicle, one entering her daughter’s skull. Mrs Astefan’s nephew, Joseph Haroun, 29, said: “It’s our country and we love it, but we feel we have little choice. The terrorists [a reference to the opposition rebels] kidnap and kill our men and dangle the holy cross over their bodies.”

It is precisely because al-Qaeda is weak in the south of Syria, that the West and its allies have concentrated on sending weapons to rebels in this area.

Residents from other sects have been able to return to their homes, even when they are in rebel control, but Christians fear that if they leave and their town is then captured by the opposition – even one led by Western-trained groups – they will never be able to return.

So, they put their hopes in the Syrian military now protecting the town. At the main entrance are sandbagged army checkpoints, plastered with posters of Assad. Military vehicles, laden with weapons, drive full-pelt across the intersection down the road that marks the beginning of the front line.

In Izraa, shop fronts have been painted in the Syrian flag to rouse nationalist fervour, the graffiti of past anti-government protests has been scrubbed out or painted over.

Instead, the sense is of having been abandoned by other “Christian nations” such as America and Britain, no matter what the promises of their leaders.

As another priest in Izraa, who asked not to be named, put it: “Please tell Mr Cameron, we don’t seek any help or donations, but please, equally, stop arming terrorists.”