A coffee in the desert.
He looks attentively into the desert. The young Syrian soldier on the back of the silver pick-up has his hands on the heavy machine gun. We drive through the deserted countryside for over two hours. Our destination is the ancient temple city of Palmyra. Every now and then we stop at a military checkpoint. Sometimes old city buses pass us, which are now filled with soldiers oft he Syrian Arab Army. In our car, right behind the military vehicle, everyone is in a good mood. Archbishop Philippe Barakat happily tells us, that he has not seen the desert so green for over 20 years. He blows the smoke from his cigarette through the open window of the car. He speaks French fluently, like many Syrian clerics.
We left for Palmyra from his home town Zaidal, near Homs, the same morning. The city and the surrounding area is a military restricted area after the Islamic State (ISIS) successfully conquered Palmyra twice. We are granted access to the city only because of the Syrian Catholic Archbishop. Two priests accompany us from his diocese. The younger one of them pours coffee into small cups and hands them to everyone in the car. The scent of cardamom spreads.
Despite the war years, the famous Syrian hospitality has not changed. We experience this very often on our trip through western Syria. I accompany Father Peter Fuchs, the managing director of Christian Solidarity International in Germany. This aid organization supports Christian institutions in Syria, such as schools or parishes. And the Syrians are very happy to have guests from Germany. Even strangers speak to us enthusiastically, mostly translated by our companions. We are always invited for coffee and pastries. They proudly show us family photos, introduce us to friends or hand over small gifts. But in the many conversations we have, we also learn about the war.
The civil war, which has been raging since 2011, has already killed up to half a million people. It is said that around 12 million people have fled from the war, but most of them stayed within Syria. In Bab Tuma, a Christian quarter in Damascus, the Chaldean Catholic priest Abuna Malek shows us fragments of mortar grenades and impact holes in the churchyard. In the fights for the Syrian capital between 2012 and 2018, the Islamist rebels came close to this quarter and bombed it.
The holes in the walls and floors can be found everywhere in Bab Tuma. For example, the Armenian Catholic school was hit several times: two grenades killed a nine-year-old student in 2014 and injured around 60 other students and parents. In the Mar Yakub monastery in the western small town of Qara, we visit the old cellars below the monastery, in which the nuns had to hide with many women and children from the village for several days in 2013 when the fighting raged outside.
The church in the middle of the ruins
On the way to Palmyra we stop again at a checkpoint. On a wall we see photos of Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, the Secretary General of the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. A soldier looks through our passports. He knows one of the priests, so he hands the passports back to the driver. We should wait a moment, he says, and disappear into the small house in front of which many soldiers are sitting and resting.
A few minutes later he comes back with coffee in small cups for all of us. We continue the drive. The military vehicle in front of us has now changed. The mood is joyful, the driver turns up Arabic music. The other priest offers us fruits and dumplings.
We leave the flat desert behind and pass a mountain range. We become more serious, as we see Palmyra ahead. The military vehicle leads us past several gun emplacements into the outskirts of the new town. The houses are partially or completely destroyed, we almost see no people and only very few soldiers. They are probably in another part of the city.
We stop in front of the remains of the Syrian Catholic Church. When we get out of the car, the commander of the local government troops and two soldiers greet us. Archbishop Barakat and the officer, whose name we are not told, know each other. We explore the small, burned-out church and the destroyed rectory right next to it.
One of the two priests had been the parish priest here until ISIS conquered Palmyra for the first time. His wife died of cancer. He fled with his parish and his two small children from ISIS to Homs.
But there are more cases like the priest‘s. In areas controlled by ISIS or rebel groups such as the al-Nusra Front or the Free Syrian Army, the situation was dangerous for Christians and other religious minorities such as Shiites, Alawites, Druze or Yazidis. They were threatened with kidnapping, displacement or even murder. Many Christians fled from these areas to the government-controlled southwestern part of the country or to a neighboring country, especially Lebanon or Turkey. In some areas, Christians have formed their own militias, for example in Saidnaya.
In order to repel attacks from the al-Nusra front, the residents of the Christian city north of Damascus put together a militia. Successfully.
For Christians, Saidnaya is a holy place because in the local Greek Orthodox women’s monastery there is an icon of St. Mary painted by the Evangelist Luke. Furthermore it is told that the apostle Thomas came to a Jupiter temple in Saidnaya, where the Thomas monastery is still located today. On the mountain above the city there is a statue of Jesus Christ, 32 meters high, which was erected in October 2013 during a ceasefire lasting several days.
In July 2019 President Assad visited a Syrian Catholic youth camp in Saidnaya and emphasized in his speech that Christians in Syria “have never been strangers”.