Syrian Christians marked a sombre Easter on Sunday, many having to observe the holy day in areas devastated by Syria’s conflict, including in the northern hamlet of Ghassaniyeh.
The Christian town on the edge of Idlib province was once home to some 10,000 residents, all of them Catholics except six Muslim families.
Now Ghassaniyeh is a ghost town, with no more than 15 of its residents left.
“We’re weren’t able to celebrate either the Passion or the Crucifixion, we didn’t dare to leave our homes,” 88-year-old Giorgio told AFP, referring to religious ceremonies on Good Friday.
But Giorgio, one of the last residents left in the town, decided to make it to church for the Easter Sunday service.
Dressed in a blue trousers, a beige jacket and traditional white headscarf, he marked the occasion with eight other residents, four nuns and two priests.
“We are people of peace, not of war. We want peace for the whole world,” added Giorgio, whose children fled town when their homes were destroyed in shelling.
At the entrance to the town, a large statue of Saint George slaying the dragon has been half destroyed by a rocket, and an altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary bears the marks of fighting.
The roof of one of the three churches in the area, belonging to the Evangelical community, has been pierced by a rocket and the floors of buildings in the town have been reduced to rubble by successive air raids.
In the capital Damascus, where fighting between rebels and regime forces has engulfed districts on the outskirts of the city, the atmosphere was similarly sombre.
“This year, we aren’t celebrating with the family,” said 32-year-old Naji, whose brother was killed in violence three months ago.
“I’m ashamed to utter the word ‘celebration’ while my country is bleeding,” added 53-year-old Fadia, a translator living in northern Damascus.
“It’s sadness that unites the families on this day… there are so many relatives and friends who have left the country,” she added.
“While in the past the churches were full of believers, today it was desperately quiet. People are afraid to leave their homes.”
State television showed footage of Easter services in the capital, some of them sparsely attended. The Orthodox Christians of Syria celebrate Easter in May.
At its peak, Syria’s Christians numbered around 1.8 million, approximately five percent of the population. They have remained largely out of the armed revolt which erupted after a crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011.
The violence has killed 70,000 people since then, according to UN figures, and prompted a call on Sunday from Pope Francis for a “political solution.”
Speaking in front of some 250,000 people from around the world in the Vatican, Francis prayed for “dear Syria, for its people torn by conflict and for the many refugees who await help and comfort.
“How much blood has been shed! And how much suffering must there still be before a political solution to the crisis will be found?” he asked.