‘Now There Is No One’: The Lament of One of the Last Christians in a Syrian City

On Christmas Day, Michel Butros al-Jisri, one of the last Christians in the Syrian city of Idlib, didn’t attend services, because the Islamist rebels who control the area had long since locked up the church. Nor did he gather with friends and relatives to celebrate around a tree because nearly all of his fellow Christians have either died or fled during Syria’s 10-year civil war.

Instead, Mr. al-Jisri said, he went to the city’s Christian cemetery, which no one uses anymore, to sit among the graves of his forebears and mark the day quietly, by himself.

“Who am I going to celebrate the holiday with? The walls?” he asked. “I don’t want to celebrate if I am alone.”

Mr. al-Jisri, who is 90, stooped and almost deaf but still fairly robust, is a living relic of one of the many formerly vibrant Christian communities in the Middle East that appear headed for extinction.

Communities across the Middle East and North Africa — some of which trace their roots to Christianity’s early days — have been struggling for decades with wars, poverty and persecution. A British government report in 2019 found that Christians in the Middle East and North Africa had fallen to less than 4 percent of the population from more than 20 percent a century ago.

The past decade has been particularly brutal as the upheavals have left Christians in parts of Iraq, Syria and beyond under the control of Islamist militants. They were subject to the whims of their new rulers, who banned their religious practices, seized their properties and even singled them out for death at times.

Over nine decades, Mr. al-Jisri went from being a member of a Christian community in Idlib that blended easily into the city’s social fabric to one of only three known Christians who remain 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 2 months old, and his father soon remarried and had two more sons.

Although Idlib’s Christians did not rival the numbers in major cities like Aleppo, whose Christian population also dropped during the war, there was a small, vibrant community in the provincial capital and nearby villages, living alongside the area’s Muslim majority with little friction.

Mr. al-Jisri’s family was Greek Orthodox, like most of Idlib’s Christians, and worshiped at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, a stone chapel with a bell tower and rich in icons, built in 1886 near the city center. A National Evangelical Church was built around the corner years later.

Members of his community worked as jewelers, doctors, lawyers and merchants, and even sold alcohol, though it was religiously forbidden, to their Muslim neighbors.

On Easter and Christmas, the priest opened his home to Muslim and Christian well-wishers, according to Fayez Qawsara, a historian from the area. A huge Christmas tree in a square near the church drew crowds of Muslim and Christian children who came to receive gifts, said Father Ibrahim Farah, Mr. al-Jisri’s former priest.

For many decades, Mr. al-Jisri worked for the church as the cemetery caretaker, keeping it clean, mending fences and organizing funerals. He would receive the grieving families and make coffee for those paying their respects.

Syria has been ruled for more than 50 years by the al-Assad family, and under both Hafez, who died in 1990, and his son, Bashar, who has been Syria’s president since, violence between religious communities was rare.

But that system, and the life that Mr. al-Jisri had long known, fell apart after Syria’s civil war began in 2011, shaking the government’s hold on large swaths of territory.

In 2015, Islamist rebels stormed the city of Idlib. As they took control, they killed a Christian man, Elias al-Khal, and his son, Najib, who sold alcohol, Mr. al-Jisri said.

Soon after, they kidnapped Father Ibrahim and held him for 19 days, the priest said. By the time he was released, the church library and archive had been pillaged, and most of the about 1,200 Christians who had remained in the city until the rebels arrived had already fled or were on their way out.

“News spreads easily,” Mr. al-Jisri said. “They put their families in cars and drove away.”

The city’s new rulers closed the church and banned public displays 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 nice mosaic,” Father Ibrahim said by telephone from Toronto, where he moved after fleeing Syria. “Now, it is a complete mess.”

Christians were about 10 percent of Syria’s population of 21 million before the war began in 2011. Now, they account for about 5 percent, with fewer than 700,000 left, according to groups that track the persecution of Christians around the world.

With the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Christians began to leave that country in droves as well, and their population had shrunk to less than 500,000 by 2015 from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.

The flight of Christians from Idlib was particularly extreme, and by the end of 2015, Father Ibrahim said, only five Christians were left.

Two have since died.

One of those remaining is a woman who prefers to keep her life private. Another, Nabil Razzouq, 72, is a retired widower whose four adult children live elsewhere in Syria or abroad. He said he had chosen to stay in Idlib because the war had stolen Syrians’ time and he did not want to lose his home as well.

“If I lost time and place, I would go insane,” he said. “That’s why I held onto the place.”

Idlib is the last province in Syria still mostly controlled by rebels, and more than a third of the 4.4 million people in the country’s northwest fled there during the war or were bused there by the government after it conquered their towns.

Mr. al-Jisri said that he had not entered the church, helped with a funeral or had a drink of alcohol since before the rebels took over.

“Now, there’s no one,” he said.

Members of his former congregation still pay him an honorary salary, which puts food on his table. He lives in a one-room house where a single gas burner serves as the kitchen, cushions on the floor are the living room and his bedroom is a mattress pushed against the wall.

He has a heater, but can’t get fuel. He has a television and a radio but no electricity.

Above the cupboard where he keeps his teacups hang fading photographs of dead relatives, crucifixes and icons of Jesus and Mary.

When guests drop by, he serves them tea or coffee in his small dirt courtyard, where the call to prayer from a nearby mosque rings out through the day.

“We are living, thank God,” he said. “We don’t owe anyone anything and no one owes us anything.”

Mr. al-Jisri never married, and all but one of his siblings have died, he said. He thinks his surviving brother lives in the United States, but they are not in touch.

He has nieces and nephews whom he would love to visit in Aleppo, about an hour’s drive away in normal times. But he hasn’t made the trip in years, because it would require crossing a hostile front line between rebel and government forces.

So he spends his days wandering the city market, chatting with neighbors or dropping in on friends — or on the children of friends who have died.

It doesn’t bother him that they are all Muslims.

“We are all brothers,” he said.

Some days, he walks to the cemetery where he worked for so many years, just to check on it. Once busy with families coming and going, it is now deserted, and he sometimes sits for hours, alone with the gravestones.

But despite the collapse of his community, he said he had never considered leaving Syria.

“Why should I?” he said. “I have friends that I love a lot, nobody is bothering me and I’m not bothering anyone.”

The churches in Idlib are still closed, even though the Islamist group that controls the area, as part of its efforts to play down its more extremist past, has allowed Christians in nearby villages to resume services in their churches.

But that has not persuaded Mr. al-Jisri’s congregation to return.

“I wish they’d come back,” he said.

His closest friends are the pet pigeons he keeps in a room attached to his house. As they flutter around him in the courtyard cooing, he flings birdseed and sings to himself old Arabic songs about love and a country that has not always loved him back:

O treasure of the Levant, your love is on 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 years and nights you are gone.

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