Syrian Christians shook their heads in disbelief. They had seen all of this happen before, in Lebanon, during the country’s horrible civil war that started in 1975 and ended two decades later. But they never imagined – not in their wildest dreams – that only three years later they themselves would suffer the same fate at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) as it emerged from the chaos of the Syrian battlefield, overrunning entire cities and towns, from 2012-2015, and setting up its own self-proclaimed capital in the sleepy city of al-Raqqa, on the Euphrates River.
In June 2013, a 49-year Catholic priest was captured and shot dead at his church in the Christian village of Ghassaniyeh, in the Homs Governorate in central Syria. The murder was claimed by Jabhet al Nusra, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Then, in December 2013, al-Nusra fighters abducted 13 nuns from a monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula. Before taking the hostages, they terrorized the village, trying to convert Christians to Islam. At checkpoints, Christians were asked to recite verses from the Quran. Those who failed to do so were shot at close range.
Much of that violence and fear finally appears to be a thing of the past, as one ISIS stronghold has crumbled after another, under the might of US-backed Kurdish troops in al-Raqqa, and the might of the Russian and Syrian armies in other parts of the country. For the first time in six years, Syrian Christians are now celebrating Christmas free to carry out their religious traditions without being intimidated or attacked, or worried that a suicide bomber will blow himself up at the gates of their churches in Damascus and Aleppo.
Mortars from the Damascus countryside, which long rained on the nearby Christian quarters of the capital, have all but ceased, and 24-hour electricity has been restored, not only to the Christian parts of Damascus but to the rest of the city as well.