After serious deliberation, the Franciscan Friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, a group of monks living in territory occupied by the Islamic State in Syria, have made the decision to stay on despite the dangers, insisting that a good shepherd never abandons his sheep.
In recent days, the Prior of the community, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, took a survey among his confreres asking whether whether in the face of new risks of violence and persecution it was better to stay on with the few remaining Christians or to move to safer territory.
The number of local Christians in the parishes of the Syrian villages under the control of Islamist forces continues to dwindle as many leave on their own or are driven out. Moreover, outright persecution against the Christians has also increased. Not long ago, one of the Franciscans, Father Dhiya Azziz, was abducted by Islamist militants, and only released after 12 days of detention.
After receiving a good number of responses, Father Pizzaballa said that “almost all have clearly expressed the view that it is only right to remain in the villages, without consideration for the number of parishioners or the danger involved.”
Pizzaballa also reflected that the Franciscans of the Custody “have never left the places and people that the Church has entrusted to it, even at risk of danger,” adding that “not a few of our martyrs, even in recent times, died in circumstances not too dissimilar from the current situation.”
“A shepherd does not abandon his flock,” he said, “and does not ask whether his sheep are worth much or little, or if they are numerous or young. For a shepherd all the sheep are important and he loves them all the same way.”
There are several hundred Christians in the regions of Syria where the Islamist militants rule, and the jihadists do everything in their power to make life as unpleasant as possible for the so-called infidels.
The villages of Knayeh, Yacoubieh and Jdeideh in the Orontes valley, for instance, are home to some four hundred baptized Christians. They continue to live, pray and attend mass there, even though the jihadists have stripped the three Catholic parishes in the area of bells, crosses and statues of saints.
Under the jihadist domination, Christians are allowed no public expressions of the Church’s life: no bells, no processions, no crosses on the churches, and no statues.
In autumn 2014, one of the Franciscans, Father Hanna Jallouf, the pastor of Knayeh, went in person to the Islamic Court in the area to denounce the increasing abuses perpetrated by Islamist brigades against the monastery.
Father Jallouf intended to see whether the “new order” imposed by the jihadists would guarantee the limited rights of a Christian subject, even those prescribed under Sharia law.
As a result, the jihadists arrested Father Jallouf on trumped up charged of cooperation with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, along with a group of young people of the parish, and they were held in detention.
Eventually Jallouf’s sentence was commuted to house arrest.
Nonetheless, the Franciscans are staying, insisting that until they are killed off, there will still be Christians in the Holy Land.
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