Christians in Syria feel abandoned; they risk their lives every day. However, the few churches that are still active are full of faithful during Masses, according to Samaan Daoud.
Daoud was a tour guide for Italians before the outbreak of the war. He is one of the Syrian Catholics who has courageously decided to stay in his country.
In conversation with ZENIT, Daoud spoke about the Christmas traditions in his country, where this year’s festivities will be lived in an intertwining of despair and hope.
ZENIT: Can you tell us about your activity as a tour guide in Syria?
Daoud: I began to be a tour guide with Italian groups in 1994 but, unfortunately, on May 12, 2011, I suddenly lost this job. I continue to be a guide, but not a tourist guide: in 2012, after nine months of “stop,” I began to guide journalists in the battlefields and areas of conflict. I was at Maalula in September of 2013 when it was taken by Qaeda fundamentalists of the Al-Nusra Front. At present I also translate books of the Salesians of the Middle East from Italian into Arabic: I have translated six in total.
ZENIT: By tradition, how is Christmas spent by Syrians? Are there particular customs?
Daoud: Christmas is a national celebration in which all the people take part: only Christians have the Crib; however, the majority of Syrians set up a Christmas tree in their home. There are still Christians who do the Christmas fast, which lasts 40 days and represents an authentic Middle Eastern Christian tradition. During this month there are many concerts that are held either in churches or in large theaters. The streets are embellished with Christmas decorations but, unfortunately, in the last three years many of these decorations are no longer seen, because so many families have lost dear ones and the country is half destroyed (over these three years 3 million homes have been destroyed in Syria).
On Christmas Eve all Christians go to church for the Mass then, in the late evening, they have dinner. On Christmas Day all families meet with the head of the family and, every region of Syria has its special dish, for instance, the most famous Christmas dish of Damascus is called kibbeh — finely ground wheat with mutton: this pasta is filled with fried meat, pistachios, onions and then put in cooked yogurt. In the Damascus tradition, a white plate is served, always based on yogurt.
ZENIT: What sort of Christmas will Christians in Syria have this year? Are they afraid?
Daoud: Christians in Syria are afraid and live in a state of great preoccupation. We are in the sight of Islamic fanaticism and radicalism. We are an easy target to strike, and we have had many Christian martyrs in this absurd war. Almost 50% of Catholics have fled the country; the majority of the Christian community at Aleppo is in great danger either because of ISIS or the Al-Nusra Front, which constantly threatens them. Christians are fleeing from Aleppo. I was there a month ago and I saw so much suffering and so much fear. The same is true for Christians of the North-East of Syria, in the Al-Qamishli region, where ISIS surrounds the area and has killed or raped many Christians, taking possession also of their lands.
ZENIT: In this terrible tragedy of the war, are voices of hope raised, such as that of Pope Francis who over a year ago called a Day of Prayer to halt international military intervention, which, in fact, did not happen. What hope do the Catholic Church and the Pope awaken in Syrian Christians?
Daoud: In addition to feeling fear, Christians in Syria suffer the syndrome of abandonment. It is difficult to remain in Syria. If there is no guarantee of peace, of security and the possibility of work, it’s impossible to ask Syrians to stay. Words are not enough; what is needed are stronger acts against this fanaticism that destroys and threatens our existence. Some in the West criticize us because we are in favor of the Damascus regime, but they have not understood that the Opposition to the regime is bloodier and more inhuman than the regime itself. The miracle is that, despite the enormous difficulties, the Christian evacuees and refugees maintain a strong faith in Jesus the Immanuel, and the churches are full of faithful.[Translation by ZENIT]