Youth exodus takes joy out of Syria Christmas – in pictures

Six years have passed since Russian-backed government forces ousted extremists from the central town of Al Qaryatain, but most of the Christians who fled have not returned

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'The holidays need people, not just piles of stone,' says Matanios Dalloul, a resident of Al Qaryatain, in Homs province, central Syria. Young people have left the town, which was seized by ISIS in 2015. All photos: AFP

Inside a Syrian monastery desecrated by extremists, Matanios Dalloul, 62, stood alone by the shattered altar where a once-thriving community celebrated Christmas before the threat of death drove them out. He is one of 20 Christians remaining in the central town of Al Qaryatain, out of the community that boasted 900 members before civil war broke out more than a decade ago. Tracing a cross against his body between piles of broken stone, the lone parishioner prayed for long life for the remnants of a dwindling community, which has nobody left under the age of 40. “The holidays need people, they need young boys and girls, not just piles of stone,” Mr Dalloul said, gesturing at what remains of the mud brick walls of the Monastery of St Elian. “It is people who generate holiday cheer, and if people do not return, there will be no joy.”

The ruins of the Monastery of St Elian in Al Qaryatain, which was razed by ISIS extremists.

The town of Al-Qaryatain in Homs province was once viewed as a symbol of coexistence between Christian and Muslim communities who had lived together for centuries before ISIS seized the area in 2015. The extremists razed the fifth-century Monastery of St Elian and abducted hundreds of Christians. They were locked in an underground dungeon in the desert for 25 days before being freed. Six years have passed since Russian-backed government forces ousted the extremists from the town but most of the Christians who fled have not returned and those who remain have neither a church nor a priest to turn to this holiday season. “The last time the churches of Al Qaryatain celebrated Christmas was in 2015 before the arrival of ISIS,” said Mr Dalloul, whose three children have all emigrated to Europe and Canada. “Now, there are no open churches, nor a priest to oversee Christmas mass,” he said.

Bassam Debbas, one of the 20 remaining Christian residents of Al Qaryatain, prepares grape molasses in his workshop.

Mr Dalloul is not alone in his disappointment. Bassam Debbas, 61, said he does not have a single relative left in Syria and will therefore spend Christmas alone, working in a small workshop where he produces grape molasses. “I don't have anyone left, not a father, nor a mother, nor siblings, nor a wife. I will spend the holiday as though it is any other day, any other working day,” Mr Debbas returned to Al Qaryatain this year to resume the family trade of molasses production from a small workshop where grapes are fermented and then cooked. Constant power cuts make the cooking a challenge but he is trying to maintain bare minimum production levels, despite the odds.

Posters of Syria's President Bashar Al Assad hangs amid the ruins of Al Qaryatain.

Outside his home, the street is empty. Traces of ISIS rule are still visible on the crater-riddled walls of neighbouring buildings, most of which are either levelled or abandoned. “The holidays have become completely different since ISIS arrived and brought sadness into the hearts of the people,” Mr Debbas said. “IS has gone, but the sadness remains,” he said.

Religious statuettes and an icon on a table in the house of Samira Khouri, who was kidnapped and locked up by ISIS in 2015 when the extremists seized Al Qaryatain.

Inside Samira Khoury's home, red rosary beads hang from a small golden cross placed on a wooden table. A single red candle is lit beside a portrait of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. There are no Christmas decorations. Ms Khoury, 68, and her three sisters were among dozens of Christians kidnapped and locked up by IS in 2015. “Since that day, happiness has disappeared completely from our home,” she said, huddling by a heater. Without relatives or neighbours to celebrate with, Ms Khoury said “happiness tastes different and the holidays don't look” the way they used to. “Nothing is the same,” she said.

Philippe Azar, 49, tidies up a corner of his 10-room house where he lives alone, after his family fled when ISIS seized Al Qaryatain.

Feeding a small stove with firewood, Phillipe Azar, 49, said his Christmas is once again blighted by the sadness of loss. “My family has left and my friends are dead,” said Mr Azar, who lives alone in a 10-room house once bustling with relatives. Azar – who has not put up any Christmas decorations since the start of Syria's war in 2011 – said he will spend the holiday near his heater. He may invite an 80-year-old friend over for a glass of wine but that is only if he is in good enough health to visit. “The Christmas tree has been packed in a box since 2011,” Mr Azar said. “Who should I put it up for? Why would I celebrate alone, without my siblings, neighbours and friends?”

Updated: December 25, 2021, 5:46 AM