Damascus (AsiaNews) – For tens of thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria, this was their first Christmas far from home. Despite having lost almost everything they had in Iraq, there is no despair in their eyes: even though poor and without a certain future, here they are finally “free”. This is also the first Christmas “finally in peace”, without bombs or attacks.
On the night of December 24th at least 1500 Iraqi refugees, crowded the tiny nave of the small Chaldean parish Church of St Teresa of Damascus (see photo). Nostalgia for their homeland; anxiety for their children’s future; the anguish of seeing a lifetime’s savings slowly eroded by months (or years) of waiting for a visa to “any country in the west, to rebuild a life”: all of this fills their hearts, as they gather in the Church, the only place they still feel “at home”.
Official estimates from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) state that since 2003 Syria has welcomed over 1.4 million Iraqis. 80% of these live in Damascus. Christians count for 20 thousand and the Chaldeans are the largest group. According to data from the Chaldean archdiocese of Aleppo, 7 thousand families live in the capital and surrounding villages. Most of them left Iraq in a hurry, often after the last ultimatum from the “Islamic militias” who threaten Christians with “conversion or death” in order to appropriate all of their belongings. “Finally after years we can once again celebrate Christmas in safety – rejoices Fadia, a young mother from Baghdad who arrived here only 6 months ago with her family – we can take part in the mass without fearing for our lives, without police patrols outside the door, sharing our joy at this celebration with other Christians and with the entire city”.
An hour before the ceremony begins it is already impossible to get into St Teresa’s: the faithful are massed on the steps of the Church and as the doors open it’s like a river breaking its banks. People fill every corner of the small church, children gather on the altar steps and the choir balconies and many remain outside. Father Youssef, the young parish priest, has difficulty in processing up the nave with the deacons and altar boys. Once mass is over people stop outside the Church to speak to each other, before returning home for the meal, the traditional pacha, a broth of lamb offal. In apartments in Jaramana, one of the area’s of Damascus where there is the highest concentration of Iraqi immigrants, in front of TV’s perennially tuned to the Christian Satellite cannel Ishtar TV, families follow celebrations in Al Qosh, Baghdad, Ankawa. Christmas and New Years celebrations at home and those as refugees are compared. “Certainly, this isn’t Iraq – vents Oveed, a 17 year-old youth from Mosul, who in June witnesses the death of his young parish priest Fr. Ragheed Ganni – but at least we no longer feel like prisoners in our own home, we are alive and free and this is an immense gift”. “There is no more room for Christians in Iraq” – cuts Assad a former bookshop owner from Baghdad, who in 2005 lost his store and his leg in an attack, in which his broche in law died. While Sunnis and Shiites begin to return to Iraq, there “Is still no safe area for Christians” affirms Assad, some of whose family is still at home. “The situation is always the same”, says Salma, as he watches Christmas day mass celebrated by Patriarch Card. Emmanuel Delly III in the parish of Saint Elia in Baghdad Jadida on TV. “Do you see – he asks – all of the empty pews in the Church? Before the war, you couldn’t find a seat if you didn’t arrive in time!”. “This is no life that we are living here in Syria – mourns Rita a widow with two children – but it is better than the terror that reigns in Iraq, we are only waiting to emigrate somewhere else, our only hope is our faith!”.
Those who arrive here, Muslim or Christian alike, arrive only with there documents which prove the reason for their leaving: death certificates of relatives killed in an attack; letters which threaten “infidels to eliminate”; reports of livelihoods sacked or destroyed. They do not know what has become of all they have left behind; often they even loose trace of their relatives and friends still in Iraq. Those who were once engineers, chemists, professors or businessmen, in Damascus become the unemployed or cheap labour force. But “there is one thing that no-one can take away from us” – explains Jan, deacon and choir director, one of the pioneers of Iraqi emigration to Damascus – our faith: this is our strength and our hope”.
And the Christmas season really seems to give them back their joy and hope to their wounded hearts. An unshakeable certainty is housed within them, which at this time of the year is more concretely visible. The Chaldean Archbishop of Aleppo, Msgr. Antoine Audo explains: “The gift that God gives to us, the love of His Son among us, represents the light of hope, an alternative to the violence which Iraqis know and are intimately familiar with”. 15 year old Mina from Samarra, orphaned by both of her parents murdered for their faith, explains: “For us the greatest gift we could receive today is not to be forgotten”. She then asks to make an appeal “to the Pope and the world: have mercy on the Iraqi people!”.