BEFORE THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR, more than 20,000 Christian families lived in the Al-Jazeera region, on the border with Turkey in northeastern Syria. Many of these Christians are the descendants of those who fled the genocide of the Armenians in 1915 in Turkey or Kurdish attacks in the neighboring Iraqi area of Duhok in 1933. Today, only an estimated between 7000 and 8000 families remain. An unknown number of Christians have left in the wake of Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of the region.
Three bishops still have their headquarters in this area, which is also known as the Hassake Governorate: they are the leaders of the Syrian Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox and the Assyrians Church of the East. Some 30 priests of various Christian Churches serve the Chaldean, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian faithful. Among them is Msgr. Nidal Thomas, Vicar of the Chaldean Church of Jesus the King in Al-Jazeera. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), which has helped Christians in the Hassake Governorate with different programs in more than nine years of conflicts in the region, spoke with the priest about the current situation in the region.
What is the present situation of Christians in Al-Hassake? How is their day-to-day life?
The status of Christians is the same as other religions in the area, including Muslims and others. Because of COVID-19, everyone is staying at home. Shops are closed. Living conditions are difficult because most people are self-employed. Christians spend a lot of their income on food and other necessities and they are currently suffering from financial hardships. Price increases create a lot of problems, in addition to the scarcity of some basic materials. Gas, fuel, bread, and electricity are available, and their prices have not increased during the coronavirus crisis as did other goods and services.
Is the region affected by the coronavirus?
Local authorities have imposed a curfew, and everybody is respecting it. People are staying at home and go at certain times to shop for necessities. There have been no reports of COVID-19 infections.
Are people able to bring their children to school?
Because of the coronavirus, all schools are closed. Some private schools—all affiliated with a particular Christian Church—are helping parents with the payment of yearly tuition fees; others have increased the tuition without mercy. Private lessons for the 9th and 12th Grade are common practice, and teachers are taking advantage of the situation and raising the prices for each subject taught to 1 million Syrian Pounds (nearly $1000) per subject.
Are Christians schools just for Christians children?
Before the pandemic, only Christians schools were functioning because 90 percent of the state schools are controlled by the Kurds and they had turned them into military bases. Christian schools accept Kurds and Muslim students because the percentage of the Christian students is only about 10 percent. Even the educational staff is mixed: Kurdish, Muslims and Christians.
Is fighting continuing?
There are still attacks in Ras-Alain, and in the suburbs of Qamishli, Al-Hassakeh and Malikiya. The Kurds, the Russians, the Americans, the Turks, Hezbollah and the coalition forces are harassing everybody. War planes continue to fill the skies especially above the prisons that re full of Muslim extremists guarded by Kurdish militia. Only two or three consecutive days per week have gone by calmly since the coronavirus outbreak.
Is there a threat to Christians in particular?
There is no threat. On the contrary, the relationship with the Kurdish government is good; the state strives to stand beside the Christians. The authorities respect Christians. There are also the Christian Sutoro Armed Forces (mostly Syriac) working with the Kurds. There are only some violations [of Christians’ religious freedom] by the Bedouin soldiers that work with the authorities. We are not afraid, but we do not know what the future holds for us.
Can Christians show their presence with no fear?
Christians are loved in the region, especially since the humanitarian organizations are all Christian, and they provide 80 percent of their aid to Muslims. Going to church, ringing bells is possible as it has always been. This has never changed. Christians enjoy a lot of respect. Nothing has changed for the Christian way of life.
Are Christians returning to this region of Syria? And do Christians want to stay here in their villages?
Not at all. Nearly all Christian villages are empty except for one village with Assyrian residents. Lots of families have left the country and now their relatives want to leave and join them. Some Syrian farmers come briefly from Europe to plant or harvest their crops and then go back to Europe.