Two Franciscan friars, the only remaining clergy in Idlib, Syria, have revealed the details of their lives ministering in one of the last bastions of jihadist rule in the country, including the daily threat of being killed, tortured or attacked.
Speaking to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Firas Lutfi, Custodian of the Province of Saint Paul for the Franciscans of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, said the friars were staying to help Christians suffering extreme persecution.
Father Lutfi said: “Their suffering started a decade ago. When the war in Syria started raging in different areas of the country, militant groups took control of that region and proclaimed it an Islamic state.
“They confiscated the properties of the Christians, enforced the Islamic Shari‘a on all the non-Muslims, took their rights to move freely in their own villages, forced the women to wear the veil.
“They destroyed and prevented any apparent Christian symbols, like the crosses above the churches and the graveyards.”
Father Hanna Jallouf, 67, and Father Luai Bsharat, 40, are serving 300 Christian families in the villages of Knayeh and Yacoubieh in Idlib province, which is close to Turkey’s border with western Syria.
The region is still controlled by international jihadist groups, including an offshoot of Daesh (ISIS).
Father Lutfi said: “Those extremists have often persecuted, attacked, beaten, tortured and even murdered some of our brothers and sisters.
“Most notably, Father Francois Murad who was beheaded in 2013, and recently, a lady teacher was raped and violently killed in Yacoubieh.
“The Christians in these regions face absolute persecution, fear, violence, danger, death, terrorism and hiding their faith and opinion.”
He said: “The presence of the Franciscans is a sign of hope in the midst of the darkness and hopelessness.”
He added: “Despite the daily difficulties and the unbearable miseries, Father Luai Bsharat and Father Hanna Jallouf have stayed there because they believe in serving and trying to protect the remaining Christians, and they believe that this region should not be forsaken…”
Father Firas emphasised that the friars and Christian families believe their presence in the area is of paramount importance.
He said: “Both the laity and the friars there strongly believe that they are, with their presence, contributing in strengthening the Church so that [the Church] can continue living through Her people during these atrocities.”