DAMASCUS – The Bab Shari area in Damascus has been transformed into a heavily fortified compound. On every road there are two military checkpoints and no cars, not even the ones with an official permit, are allowed to pass through. Thus, I walked the last half mile to the Syrian Greek Orthodox al-Salib church, where mass was already on its way since early in the morning on Christmas Day. The closer I came, the more the sound of cannon fire in the distance was drowned out by the singing that came out of the beautiful building.
There was another round of security at the gate where volunteers used scanners to make sure nobody carried any guns or explosives inside. A surprisingly high number of visitors were attending the service and lighting candles.
“Actually, visits have gone up since the start of the war,” explained one of the volunteers, who asked not to be named for safety reasons. The Greek Orthodox church is the oldest and largest Christian community in Syria. The neighborhood is one of the wealthier in Damascus, reflected by the number of fur coats and other expensive fashion items people were wearing today.
Unsurprisingly, the volunteer said that, “you’ll find that most people here are very much pro-Assad.” In February of this year, Syrian Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Levant and Antioch, John al-Yaziji, met with president Assad and was quoted by state media expressing his confidence that Syria would come out victorious from its crisis.
The Greek Orthodox community is far from the only Christian group in multi-ethnic and multi-religious Syria. Throughout the country, but mostly in the north, there are other orthodox as well as Catholic groups, and everything in between.
Christians in Syria make up about 10% of the total population, with the largest concentration living in and around the city of Aleppo, now the scene of an all-out assault by the Syrian Army on the various rebel groups that control most of the town.
Many, if not most, Christians have fled. A vast number of them are Assyrians, an ethnic group with origins in ancient Mesopotamia and which now inhabits roughly the same area as the Kurdish people in Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran.
Most of them have fled either to other parts of Syria or to Turkey. Those who can afford it or have family in Europe often travel to countries like Germany or the Netherlands, either legally or facilitated by people smugglers, a representative of the Assyrian community in Holland, Abraham Tunc, told Newsmax.
This often leads to harrowing scenes when rickety boats capsize in the Mediterranean on their voyage from Turkey to EU member Greece, or when refugees get stuck, abused and extorted at the eastern European frontiers. One family member of Tunc narrowly escaped death in such a boat accident while trying to make her way from war-torn Syria to the safety of Europe.
Tunc has lived in Europe from long before war in Syria broke out, but still has family in Aleppo with whom he sometimes manages to talk on the phone. He explained that the situation there is very bad and dangerous. Other members of his extended family now live in Turkey, near the border. Some were killed.
They were never supportive of the Assad regime, but the biggest problem for the Christian Assyrians right now, said Tunc, are the jihadist groups. These militias, linked to Al Qaeda, seek to establish a caliphate across the Levant, ruled by the laws of their extremist brand of Islam. In their view, those who are not “true Muslims” deserve to be killed, and Christians most certainly qualify. “I think my cousin was killed just because he had a Christian cross dangling from the rear view mirror of his car,” Abraham Tunc said.
Just months ago, the Lebanon based terrorist Hezbollah group, which is an ally of Iran and the regime of Syria’s Assad regime, drove out these Al Qaeda linked groups from the north-western coastal part of Syria, where many Christian minorities live.
Meanwhile, when mass in Damascus came to a close, this correspondent headed for the exit and, once outside, almost overlooked it: What appeared at first glance to be a nativity scene placed against the church, turned out to be an improvised little space to remember those who were killed during the ongoing war.
The wall was covered with portrait pictures and people were telling stories; a family was dragged out of their house and murdered, a man was killed by a bomb, others suffered even more gruesome treatment.
“We lost about 200 members of our community because of the war,” the aforementioned volunteer said.
“It all started as protests. People wanted more freedom, which everybody understood. And then it became war and we are where we are today,” he added.
When the singing inside subsided, the booms of the cannons at the edge of town came back. It took about 10 minutes to walk back to the car that was parked next to a military roadblock. They were checking trunks of passing cars. The news reported that the Pope prayed for Syria. On an otherwise tranquil Christmas day in Damascus, the war was never far away.
A different version of this story appeared earlier in NewsMax. This is the “director’s cut.”