No Christmas celebrations for last three Christians in Syrian village

Thousands of Syrian Christians have moved abroad during the 10-year civil war

5 December 2021 • 6:00am

This article originally appeared in The Telegraph, December 5, 2021

There will be no Christmas celebrations for the last three Christians in the Assyrian village of Dizen in northeast Syria.

The Khabur River that once watered this agricultural settlement no longer flows, the former inhabitants who fled an Islamic State invasion in 2015 have not returned, and their homes have been resettled by Syrians displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country.

“There is no one here to celebrate with,” said Jan Noweiah Isho, who along with wife Leila Kefarkees Suleiman and cousin Naim Elijah Khano are the last Christians in town.

“If the original inhabitants don’t come back there will be no future,” he told the Sunday Telegraph in the courtyard of his home last month. “It’s already too late.”

The exodus of Middle Eastern Christians from ancestral homelands is no recent phenomenon. During the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Assyrian refugees fleeing persecution in Anatolia were resettled by French mandate officials along the Khabur Valley, where they cultivated lands previously grazed by nomadic pastoralists.

Towns like Dizen flourished as large scale irrigation projects transformed the region into Syria’s breadbasket. By the 1990s the town had over 400 inhabitants.

Today there are as many churches as congregants in the once flourishing settlement, though one mudbrick structure is now a ruin holding farm equipment and Islamic State militants set fire to the other two.

The extremists seized the town for three months in early 2015, leaving behind destruction and desecration. The 60 families of Dizen fled to nearby Hassakeh, then many travelled on to Lebanon and lives in exile in Australia, America and Europe.

“It was a difficult time,” said Mr Isho, 69, recalling returning to find the family home ransacked.

“It was shocking finding crucifixes and statues of Mary lying broken in the street,” added Mrs Suleiman, 61.

It was not the first tragedy that Syria’s civil war had inflicted on the family. In 2011, the first year of the ongoing conflict, their 20-year-old son Isho was killed while fighting in the Syrian army.

The next year another son Chamoun, 25, was kidnapped by Islamist militants while taking a bus from Damascus. They have never heard from him again but have not given up praying for his return.

“We stay because we still hope he will come back,” said Mr Isho.

Beyond that there is little to keep them here. With a son in Melbourne and a daughter in the Netherlands, they have options to leave. “We have the papers ready to move to Australia,” said Mr Isho

For now they remain the custodians of Dizen, along with cousin Naim, a taciturn man who said he returned from decades of living in Germany because there is no place like home.

Down the road from his modest mudbrick house, Mr Isho unlocked the door to Dizen’s largest church to show the destruction wrought by IS.

Soot from an arson’s fire coated the inside of Mar Chamoun. The diminutive Mrs Suleiman had attempted to clean the church but her efforts extended only as far as her reach, and above that the walls remained blackened by smoke.

She returns occasionally to wash the floors but the bird droppings still collect underneath the chandeliers.

“The church leaders keep telling me not to clean it up if we want to get funding to get it repaired but I keep sneaking back,” she explained.

A plaque on the wall says the church was built in 1992 at a cost of 1,060,000 Syrian pounds. The best harvests the region ever reaped was in 1988, Mr Isho recalled, and a larger church was needed to accommodate Dizen’s growing population.

The older Mar Kyriakos church had become too small.

“The street outside would be full with all the people from the village,” said Mr Isho, reminiscing on past feast days for the old church’s patron saint Kyriakos. “They would all queue up outside to light a candle.”

A humble structure close to their home, Mar Kyriakos has been lovingly restored by Mr Isho. No signs of desecration remain on its whitewashed walls and wooden ceiling.

Inside Mrs Suleiman lit candles for her missing sons and sighed. “By God!” she exclaimed, losing herself in memories.

“We Assyrians came here in 1933 and this church was built in 1937,” said Mr Isho.

But today Dizan’s future as an Assyrian village is in doubt. Since the town’s original inhabitants fled, Muslims fleeing fighting from other parts of the country have moved into many of the empty houses.

As the three Christians walked through the town, women in black niqabs looked away. A small child chanted “Allahu Akbar” repeatedly.

At the river bank, Mr Isho described how drought, dams and heavy water use upstream had seen the Khabur completely dry out completely for the first time ever in recent years.

“Before, you wouldn’t have seen the villages for the trees and green covered everything,” he said, surveying the parched fields.

“I feel like everything is ending.”