The villages of Knayeh and Yacoubieh, in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border in western Syria, still find themselves under the control of jihadist groups. Here the fearsome Islamic caliphate still holds sway; the sharia is the law, women are forced to wear veils, Christian properties have been confiscated and Christian symbols such as crosses torn down.
Among the local inhabitants who have remained in their homes despite the terrible situation, there are an estimated 300 Christian families of different denominations and ethnic groups. Two Franciscan friars, Luai Bsharat, aged 40, and 67-year-old Hanna Jallouf, have also stayed on here to minister to them.
The Christians remaining in these areas are facing persecution, fear, violence and danger, and even death. So the continuing presence of the Christians in these villages, and of the two Franciscan friars, says much about their heroic commitment. “In spite of the difficulties, Father Luai and Father Hanna have stayed on there because they believe that this region should not be abandoned. For it is close to Antioch, where Saint Paul began his travels, spreading the Word of God”, explains Father Firas Lutfi OFM, who is Custodian of the Province of Saint Paul for the Franciscans of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. He is speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International.
He continues: “Their sufferings began a decade ago. When the militant groups took control of the region and proclaimed the Islamic State, they confiscated Christian properties, imposed Islamic Sharia law on all non-Muslims, and suppressed their right to move around freely within their own villages.”
Father Firas, who previously gave his testimony about this situation in 2017 at the shrine of Fatima in Portugal, during the international pilgrimage there by ACN to mark the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the charity, recalls that “those extremists have often persecuted, attacked, beaten, tortured and even murdered some of our brothers and sisters”, as for example in the notorious case of Father François Murad, who was “beheaded in 2013”, and more recently the case of “a female schoolteacher who was raped and then murdered in Yacoubieh”.
In his recent message, which was sent to the Portuguese national office of ACN International, Father Firas reminds us that the friars are there to help everyone in need of support and guidance, regardless of their religion, race, nationality, or political opinions. “On many occasions”, he explains “the monasteries of Knayeh and Yacoubieh welcomed and gave shelter to dozens of Muslim families who were seeking refuge in the churches”, when the region became a battleground and a place of conflict.
“The presence of the Franciscans is a sign of hope in the midst of the darkness and despair”, Father Firas explains. But they also depend heavily on whatever outside support they can obtain, especially financial support since the local people can no longer harvest their own crops, which have been confiscated, or sell their own produce – and so they are in constant need of outside humanitarian aid.
ACN is currently supporting over fifty different projects to assist Christians in Syria. In addition to the emergency aid projects for vulnerable families in Aleppo and Damascus, the charity is also sponsoring a number of different projects through Father Firas Lufti.