Many Syrian Christian families that have fled Syria’s death and destruction are now “hiding” in Mount Lebanon’s Christian towns and villages. Those families have been “sentenced to house arrest” until who knows when. They have also come to realize that they are now the unacceptable “other.” Some have witnessed brutal killings or lost a friend or a relative. Others have been gripped by fear and fled their homeland to seek safety in their religion. Their coreligionists in Lebanon are now their only salvation.
The Syrian Christians are passing through an ordeal from which they cannot escape except by emigrating to faraway Western countries. But those countries are refusing them entry visas.
The stories of the Syrian families are similar. They fear for their homeland and for their future. On this Christmas Eve, they are missing their extended families, their schools, their work. ... They are missing the small details of their everyday lives. They agree that Christianity is dying in its birthplace. They deride the coolness of the Lebanese Christians, who “eventually will emigrate too.”
The displaced Syrian Christian families are afraid to talk politics. The courageous among them openly proclaim their support for the regime. And for those who blame the regime, they certainly don’t do so because they care for it or because they support the opposition.
Among those Syrian families, some oppose the regime in their own way. They regret that they did not emigrate a long time ago, when President Hafez al-Assad staged a coup in 1970.
This year’s Christmas comes at a time when those families are afraid about their fate. They have erected Christmas trees and placed nativity scenes on this land “that is as much Christian as it is Muslim.” Most of them wish they could return to Syria, but feel that their future lies in the West.
“We do not want to be killed twice”
When a six-year-old refugee named Rita wrote a letter to Santa Claus this year, she requested a new electronic game. She also asked Santa for the old toys she left behind at her Aleppo home, which she abandoned more than a month ago.
After a family friend was killed “by the rebels,” Rita’s family moved to Safra, Keserwan, to the home of the niece of Rita’s father, Antoun. The friend’s wife and son left Syria along with Rita’s family, which is composed of Rita, her brother, and their parents.
The two families now live in a chalet consisting of a bedroom and a living room. The chalet was offered to them by a relative of Rita’s father. They spend most of their time at that chalet because the children have not registered at school and the father has not yet found a job.
Antoun says he feels that his stay in Lebanon will be for no more than a month. But his wife is urging him to find work “because it seems the only option for now is to stay in Lebanon.” He is seriously trying to leave for the West. He tried his luck at the French and Norwegian embassies, but his visa request was denied.
Antoun wants things to calm down so that he can return to Syria, but on condition that “the new regime is not Islamist.” He says that he does not support the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime “because it is not democratic” and then adds, “but the president did not harm the Christians. He made them feel safe. But he certainly did not produce an ideal government.”
Antoun asserts that the majority of the Christians who support the regime do so “not out of love for Assad, but because they oppose Islamic rule.” He said that the Christians have started paying the price of supporting the regime and that his dead friend was an example of that. That friend left behind his 5-year-old son and his wife, who is under 30.
Antoun’s wife says that the friend’s wife does not sleep at night, that she cries constantly, is afraid to walk the streets, prevents her son from playing with other children and becomes hysterical whenever she hears the sound of arms.
She was able to recognize her husband’s body only by his wristwatch. His limbs have been severed and his face severely disfigured. She doesn’t want to return to Syria and would prefer to emigrate to any country that doesn’t speak Arabic. “We do not want to be killed twice,” she said. In that small chalet, talk of Christmas seems out of place. They have no hope, no joy, no family get-together — the essential features of any Christmas.
“We are paying the price of religion and identity”
Nizar, the head of a displaced Syrian Christian family, tried to “strike while the iron is hot.” He resorted to a monk and to a Christian deputy asking them to help the Syrian Christian refugees “because they prefer to stay in the Mount Lebanon area where the danger from the Syrian oppositionists is less.” But the monk told him that the church is unable to have a general solution and prefers helping with its available resources and according to what each family needs. As for the deputy, he “dissociated himself,” saying that helping only the Christian refugees “is a partitionist act” that runs contrary to his and his boss’s political line.
Nizar thinks that in the coming days many Syrian Christians will move to Lebanon “because Western reports are indicating that the regime’s collapse is imminent.” He said that Lebanon is the only place in the region where Syrian Christians can go and feel safe. He said that Western immigration is still closed for Syrian Christians, while it is open for Egypt’s Copts.
Nizar, his wife, and their three sons came to Lebanon more than two months ago. He found a job at a furniture factory. Being an interior engineer with more than 10 years of experience, they made him supervisor. His family is living “day by day.” He is awaiting the end of the school year to settle outside of Syria “if the Islamic opposition reaches power, or return to Syria if the new regime respects and safeguards all sects.”
Remarkably, he says that this time he “is not nostalgic for large family gatherings at Christmas because the fear for one’s fate is a higher priority. But Christmas is an occasion to pray so that Syria and the Syrians get out of this nightmare.”
Awaiting the new government
For Bishara, Christmas takes place somewhere far away from the Middle East, and specifically the Arab countries. “Over here, there are no true holidays or true Christmas. It a crucifixion with no resurrection.” He said that Syria’s Christians are awaiting their sentencing, which will soon be issued in the form of an agreement between the new Syrian regime on the one hand and influential Western nations and the church on the other. That would perhaps deprive them of the freedom of self-determination. As the situation in the region remains the way it is, “there is no doubt that Lebanon’s Christians will also have an unknown fate.”
Bishara and his mother live in Beirut. He is trying to get a better job so that he can receive his sister and her two children in the tiny house that he rented. He considers Syria to be “a distant dream” and asserts that returning to Syria will be very difficult “because the Christians have sought protection from a murderous regime instead of witnessing for the truth, which their religion requires them to do even if it costs them their lives.”
“The church is wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Dr. Michel al-Sabaa agrees with Bishara. Michel believes that the Christians are paying the price of the past and that “the future will be much worse than what is happening now.” He said that if the rebels enter Hama and Wadi al-Nasara over the next two weeks, there will be massacres. He also asserted that the situation is catastrophic and that he cannot think of a solution. First, because Western countries have put a veto on Syrian passports, and this is preventing Syrians from traveling, be it for a temporary visit or to immigrate. Second, “because the Vatican’s Apostolic Exhortation has no value on the ground and was a serious mistake. It asked the Christians to stay in their land without a guarantee for protection, and now their they are being slaughtered.”
He said that “the church is wrong, wrong, wrong.” He castigated the Lebanese government for dissociating itself instead of putting a plan to help the Syrians. He pointed out that “Hezbollah has asked the Christian deputies to prevent the government from receiving Syrian Christians, because that would open the door to Syrian Sunnis as well.” An emergency plan is needed to save the Syrian Christians, “and soon, the Jordanian Christians too.”
Michel said that a regional Christian party must be established, similar to Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, and not to rely to the Vatican’s solutions. He said the West wants to receive all Eastern Christians “because [the West] has a demographic problem and wants to import birth-giving wombs.”