Two Franciscan friars describe their high-risk ministry in Syria's Idlib province in one of the country’s last jihadist strongholds. They convey the daily threat that weighs on them and on the flock of some three hundred Catholic families they assist at the risk of their lives.
Fr. Hanna Jallouf is sixty-seven, Fr. Luai Bsharat is forty. These two Franciscans are the last priests to minister in the province of Idlib, near the border between Turkey and western Syria.
The two sons of St. Francis bring spiritual help to three hundred families who are holed up in the villages of Knayeh and Yacoubieh.
It was through their superior, Fr. Firas Lufti, guardian of the province of St. Paul for the Franciscans of Syria, that the two priests decided to entrust some details of their apostolate. The interview was published on October 22, 2020, on the English-language portal of the association of Aid to the Church in Need.
Fr. Lutfi sets the scene, conveying the suffering of Christians in Idlib, which began ten years ago when the Islamic State (IS) organization proclaimed a caliphate in the region: “they (the jihadists) confiscated Christians’ properties and imposed Sharia law; they destroyed and prohibited any apparent Christian symbol, such as the crosses above churches and cemeteries,” the cleric said.
Even today, even though IS no longer officially exists, the region is still in the hands of Al Qaeda’s djiahdists, and Christians still face “absolute persecution, violence, and fear.”
But, “despite the daily difficulties and the unbearable miseries, Fr. Luai Bsharat and Fr. Hanna Jallouf have decided to stay, because they are convinced that they must serve, and try to protect the Christians who remain, and they think that this region should not be abandoned,” the provincial of the Franciscans of Syria explains with emotion.
Fr. Lutfi does not hide his pride in the two priests: “Their presence is a sign of hope in the midst of darkness.… For Christian families, this is of capital importance, they help to strengthen the Church,” he insists.
But Fr. Jallouf and Fr. Bsharat know that their ministry is at high risk: “Fr. François Murad was beheaded in 2013, and more recently a teacher was raped and murdered in Yacoubieh,” added Fr. Lutfi.
The Idlib region remains a breeding ground for international jihadism: the Russian-Chechen Abdoullakh Anzorov’s use of the telephone system allowed authorities to learn that the terrorist, who is guilty of having beheaded a French teacher in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine (Yvelines) on October 16, had exchanged, before his act, information with two Allah fanatics who were clearly in Idlib.
The region remains a place of asylum for thousands of foreign Islamists, notably French, British, and Chechens. It is the last bastion of resistance to the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has regained control of around seventy percent of Syrian territory, thanks to military aid from Russia.