In One Corner of Syria, Christmas Spirit Somehow Manages to Survive

Divided and drained by war, Syrian Christians are determined to celebrate for the first time in four years.

12.25.14 10:55 AM ET

QAMISHLI, Syria — Between the collapsed economy and industrial-scale killing, one might be forgiven for assuming Christmas is a distant consideration in war-ravaged Syria.

But in Qamishli, the largest city in the Kurdish-administered strip along the Turkish frontier in the country’s northeast, the constant threat of violence hasn’t deterred local Christians from pulling out all the stops to mark this year’s celebrations.

Gaudy flashing lights are strung across the main thoroughfares; plastic Christmas trees decked out with ornaments stare out from many storefronts; the churches echo with the laughter of children ducking out of nativity play rehearsals.

To the uninitiated, this might smack of poor taste and inappropriate timing. For even amid the civil war’s unrelenting horrors with more than 200,000 dead, few have suffered quite like the Christians, who have witnessed the near-total destruction of their storied community.

Those who remain in Syria say, however, it’s precisely this catalogue of suffering that has prompted these festive displays. They’re intent on providing a little cheer amid all the gloom, and with congregants fleeing to Europe en masse, they hope restoring a measure of normality will staunch the flow.

“This revolution looks like it will take a long time, so this is something psychological,” says Om Rasheed, who has devoted part of her kitchenware shop to selling Christmas knickknacks during the holiday period. “We’re thinking perhaps we can persuade some people to stay by bringing some happiness.” It’s the first time she and other Christian business owners have celebrated since the war began, and most have jumped at the opportunity to sell off the stock of Santa Claus figurines and inflatable snowmen they imported before the real mayhem kicked off three years ago.

For Nazira Gloria, a local legislator and the head of the Syriac Women’s Council, reviving Christmas in such unlikely circumstances is part of a bigger plan to stymie the violence. “It’s our way of saying to the people, inside and outside, that enough is enough,” she said.

Qamishli’s sizeable Christian population and the patchwork of other minorities have long given the rugged border town a fairly tolerant bent. Municipal authorities have partly funded Christmas fêtes spanning Western and Orthodox Christmas (observed in early January) for many years, and many Kurds, who make up a majority here, have embraced the occasion as an opportunity, whatever their faith, to welcome in the New Year.

But with the outbreak of hostilities in mid-2011, all festivities were thrust into the deep freeze. The council building across from Om Rasheed’s shop was bombed; the city set about tearing itself apart as various groups vied for control of the strategic nexus.

Ultimately, the Kurdish YPG militia emerged on top, beating back the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and repelling repeated incursions by the ISIS jihadist group. They’ve now installed a local administration that presides over an enviably peaceful city in which most churches make do with without guards and where the souk trills with the cries of vocal bartering.

None of this has been sufficient, thought, to prevent the flight of more than half of the city’s native Christian population. Nine thousand out of an estimated 15,000 families have sought asylum elsewhere, mostly in Scandinavia and Germany, and the arrival of several thousand refugee Christians from elsewhere in Syria has done little to fill empty church pews.

“If you see a balcony without Christmas decorations, it doesn’t meant they’re not celebrating, it means they’ve left,” says Om Rasheed.

Economic privation is as responsible for this exodus as the dread of violence.

ISIS’s imposition of a tax on all goods leading into Qamishli has led to a tenfold increase in food and fuel prices. While Turkey’s continued refusal to open the border for fear of strengthening the Kurdish “government," which operates from the neighboring town of Amuda, has strangled trade and contact with the outside world.

In the past, shop owners often relied on wealthy Christians and Kurds bingeing on expensive delicacies in the Christmas period to make up for slower sales earlier in the year, “but now all the rich have left. It’s only the poor who remain,” says Khaled, a pastry chef, whose bakery used to profit from the flood of parishioners worshipping next door in the city’s leading Armenian Orthodox church.  Adding to his woes, frequent blackouts mean he must also pay out $15 a day for gas to fire his generator and keep his refrigerators cool.

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The Christian community beset with so many problems, from the lack of meat on the table to the lingering fear of ISIS on the doorstep, also is bitterly divided.

“Our situation is very complicated: we have families where one part supports the regime and some support the local administration,” said Nazira Gloria, who favors the Kurdish leadership, but whose son still stands with Assad.

This breach is an extraordinary emotional drag on the exhausted population. Priests often preach support for the regime to their congregations, many of whom loudly dissent. Assad-affiliated Christian militias skirt around the territory of rival groups aligned with the YPG. They have almost come to blows after the Assad contingent tried to seize passing Western journalists and deliver them into the custody of the regime, which retains control of a few security installations in the city center.

For the timing being, however, the peace is holding and Nehum Dahot, a young volunteer in the Kurdish-supporting Sutoro militia, is hopeful the calm will endure beyond the holiday, when they’ll have no choice but to coordinate movements to protect their neighborhoods.

“We’re focused on showing people how they can continue their lives and not wonder who believes in which system,” he said.

For a few days, in any case, many are choosing to believe in Christmas.