ASIA/SYRIA – Islamist militiamen in Tahrir al Sham allow Christians to publicly celebrate mass in Idlib province
Idlib (Agenzia Fides) – They celebrated mass in a church that has been closed for ten years. They did so in the province of Idlib, in an area still controlled by anti-Assad Islamist militias. And to give permission to reopen the Christian place of worship and celebrate the Eucharistic liturgy in a peaceful and festive atmosphere, it is the same leader of the jihadist-motivated faction that years earlier had seized property and houses of Christians as “spoils of war”.
This event is emblematic of the real situation that the Christian communities are experiencing in this region of Syria. On August 28, after a suspension of ten years”, newspapers such as al Monitor and Independent Arabia report, “the Christians still present in this area were able to celebrate Mass in the Armenian Apostolic Church of Saint Anne, near the village of Yacoubia, in the countryside northwest of Idlib. There, the feast dedicated to Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary, was traditionally celebrated on the last Sunday in August. For ten years, since this area fell under the control of jihadist militias, the church has been closed, and more recently it has also served as a refuge for refugees. Dozens of Christians from various faiths attended the liturgy, footage of which was released by the same Islamist militias that control the region.
On July 19, Muhammad al Jawlani, head of the militia of Hayat Tahrir al Sham – “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant”, a jihadist formation formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra – met with representatives of Christian communities that still exist present in the villages of Qunaya, Yacoubia and al-Jadida, and announced its intention to “protect” their liturgical celebrations, also guaranteeing the gradual return of real estate seized in recent years from Christian owners. Tharir el Sham militiamen – local sources report – set up roadblocks near the village during the celebration to ensure a peaceful unfolding of the liturgy.
The actions of Al Jawlani and the Tahrir al Sham militia have been the subject of differing assessments. Other Salafist Islamist formations such as Hurras al Din, still explicitly linked to Al-Qaeda, accused Al Jawlani of making Idlib province “less Muslim”.
For analysts and observers of the turbulent events in Syria, the election of Tahrir al Sham must be read in the light of the strategy, especially in the media, of repositioning undertaken by this Islamist group to clean up its image and internationally accredit its declared “moderate turn”. Tahrir al Sham militiamen are now issuing statements supporting the need to begin integration between the various religious communities present in the province of Idlib, opening “a new page” and noting that Islam does not forbid non-Muslims – including Christians – to practice their rituals freely.
In 2013, Al Jawlani himself was labeled a “global terrorist” by the US State Department. From now on, analysts associated with American think tanks are also following with interest the development of the various groups within the jihadist galaxy. Aaron Y. In an analysis of Hayat Tahrir el Sham available on the Washington Institute for Near East Policy website, Zelin writes that now “Jawlani is no longer just the leader of a terrorist group or rebel faction” but must be seen as representative of a turnaround that also includes a change in attitude toward the United States. “According to Ambassador James Jeffrey, former Washington Special Envoy for Syria and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al Sham used surreptitious channels to send US officials the following message: ‘We want to be your friends. We are not terrorists. We are fighting only against Assad. We are not a threat to you.”
In power games unfolding in northern Syria involving Assad’s army, groups from the jihadist galaxy, regional powers such as Turkey and global powers such as Russia and the United States, the miracle of Christians who, amid the bloody convulsions of this region, continued to professing their faith in Christ, who glorify his name, is all the more astonishing and grateful. (GV) (Agenzia Fides 8/9/2022).