How the feast will be celebrated by local Christians and refugee families in Marmarita and Homs
Syria is a country still living today with suffering and death. Even though the war that has been the scourge of the country since 2011 has almost ceased to be headline news on the major world media, the people of the country are still having to contend with the destruction, lack of food and medicines and continuing humanitarian crisis.
Many families are still living with the harsh reality of having no home of their own to live in, just like the Holy Family in Bethlehem, where there was no room at the inn and they were forced to spend the night in a stable. 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, people like the married couple Elias Ghattas and Lina Salloum, for whom Christmas is no longer the same as it was before. “There is no longer the same happiness and joy, and still less in families like our own, which are traumatised by the loss of our near and dear ones. We have a son who was called up in the army, and the biggest present for us would be for him to return home and not have to go away again any more.”
Majd Jallhoum is a young volunteer in the Saint Peter’s Centre, run by the Melkite Catholic Church in Marmarita, and she helps people like Elias and Lina. She recalls the first few Christmases after the outbreak of the war, when “It was impossible for us to celebrate at all. The idea of feasting together, toasting one another, decorating the home, while people around us were dying… It was just too painful for us.”
Majd herself has been a refugee here for the past seven years. “We came here from Damascus, having fled there from Homs initially. Then we had to flee again from there on account of the fighting all around the capital, and so we came to the Valley of the Christians.” Her story mirrors that of so many other refugees, who had to pack up and move more than once in order to seek refuge and escape the fighting.
“When we arrived here in the Valley of the Christians, we could see that people were still celebrating Christmas with enthusiasm, decorating the streets with lights and putting up Christmas trees on the village squares. And so, together with my family, I went back to celebrating the Nativity of Jesus”, she continues. “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. It was so pretty, all decorated with lights.”
Father Walid Iskandafy, the parish priest of Saint Peter’s Church in Marmarita and also the director of the Saint Peter’s Centre which helps the refugee families, describes the joyful anticipation among the refugees. “Some of them, who have been unable to celebrate the feast for years, are now being infected by the joy of those around them. All year round they are looking forward to these days.”
According to him, 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.”
Not far from Marmarita, about an hour’s drive away after passing through a number of military checkpoints, is the city of Homs. Here the Christian community is concentrated in the historic quarter known as Old Homs. This area was extensively damaged by the fighting, which raged with particular intensity from 2012 to 2014. But now, amid the rubble from the bombings, the homes and churches are little by little being repaired and rebuilt.
The Houdaib family is one of those who will once again be celebrating Christmas in their own recently rebuilt home, thanks to help from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). “We’re going to celebrate Christmas with great joy in our own home at last”, says Evon Hajjar, mother and grandmother to the family. “We won’t be able to put up a Christmas tree, however, because they are extremely expensive and prices have gone through the roof, owing to the grave economic crisis we’re living through”, explains Marwan, her son. “But for us it’s a wonderful gift just to be able to be together in our own home.”
The Houdaib family will be attending 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 extends his Christmas greetings to us: “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!”
The Christians of Syria have suffered a great deal in the war. As a religious minority in a predominantly Muslim country they have been and continue to be an easy target and a scapegoat for jihadist groups such as so-called Islamic State/Daesh and Al Qaeda. According to information from the local Church, the Christians in Syria have fallen in number from some 2.5 million to around 700,000 in the last few years.
In the midst of this daily struggle for survival, they are celebrating Christmas. Here, where there is no place for the usual consumerist frenzy, the lights of the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib have once more become a sign of genuine salvation. Christ is born and lives in the midst of his people, suffering with them and bringing hope to a world that longs for his saving message: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of goodwill.”