Exodus casts pall over Christmas in southern Syria

Daraa (Syria) (AFP) –


Gerges Rizk put the final touches on a newly renovated church in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, but hundreds of congregants who once packed its pews will be missing this year.

Dressed in a black robe, the priest adjusted a large crucifix at the altar of the Sayyidet Al-Beshara church, its pristine floors shining beneath his feet.

"More than 500 Christian families lived in the city of Daraa before the start of the conflict," Rizk told AFP.

"Now the number has dropped by at least half."

Retaken in July 2018 by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad following a series of surrender deals with rebels, Daraa is struggling to revive its Christmas cheer.

Of the city's three churches, the main Evangelical church has closed because most of its congregants have left.

A second Catholic church has been without a priest most of the year, with its current pastor living outside the province.

But the Sayyidet Al-Beshara church, led by Rizk, has gained a new lease on life after restoration works were completed this week ahead of the planned Christmas mass.

The church never stopped holding the annual prayers, even when it found itself on the frontline between rebels and regime forces between 2013 and 2018.

The recent repairs have fixed its rocket-hit roof, bullet-riddled walls and smashed windows, in a move Rizk hopes will draw large crowds this year.

But the priest expects their number will not match those before the war.

- 'Celebrate alone' -

The last Sunday mass before Christmas was attended only by a few dozen elderly people in a small reception hall, ringed by empty seats.

"Only the elderly remain after an exodus of young (Christians) searching for safety and jobs," Rizk told AFP.

North of Daraa city, the town of Izraa is home to Byzantine-era churches, including the Greek Orthodox church of Saint George.

Priest Eliya Tafnakji, who oversees the cathedral, counts the number of congregants who have left the country since the start of Syria's war in 2011.

Out of the 100 Christian families who live in the town, some 80 young people have fled the country, he said.

"In many homes, only the elderly remain," he added.

"I hope for the day I will count the number of those returning."

Beneath the church's arched entrance, rows of empty benches lined the broad-aisled nave.

Wasila Thiab sat alone facing the alter, with no-one but the priest around.

The 76-year-old said she is not in the mood to celebrate this year.

She has not put up a Christmas tree at her home or prepared sweets after four of her six daughters left Syria.

"Christmas is about family, but my girls have left to (North) America and Europe," she said.

"Am I supposed to celebrate alone?"

She said she dreams of the day her entire family will gather again for Christmas but laments that it is unlikely.

"Canada is very, very far away, and so is Holland. I don't think I will ever see my girls again."

- 'Joy is lacking' -

Less than 10 kilometres (six miles) away lies the mainly Christian town of Shaqra, emptied of most of its Christian residents after a spate of attacks by rebels and jihadists during the conflict.

Such attacks have stopped since the area came back under regime control, but very few Christian families remain.

The Arsheed family is one of them.

Bullet holes are still visible on the walls and windows of their house.

But for the first time since the start of the war, the family is putting up a Christmas tree.

Maryam, 74, decorates it with the help of her daughters and granddaughters, recalling the festive mood that once reigned over the town.

"We used to prepare large quantities of sweets when the town was bustling with people," she said.

"But today we only make enough for the few who remain."

Sitting nearby, her son agreed this holiday season was a sombre one. "Our Christmas joy is lacking," said Nazeer.

"I don't expect any of the people who left will come back."