Two Franciscan friars are the only remaining clergy in Idlib, Syria, and 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 are revealed by Catholic aid group.
Father Firas Lutfi, Custodian of the Province of Saint Paul for the Franciscans of Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, told the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN ) that the friars were staying to help Christians suffering extreme persecution.
"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," said Lutfi.
He has first hand experience of the Syrian conflict having lived in Aleppo during the war which has raged for nearly 10 years.
"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," said Lufti who is a member of the Jersulalem-based Custody of the Holy Land.
Father Hanna Jallouf, 67, and Father Luai Bsharat, 40, are the friars serving 300 Christian families in the villages of Knayeh and Yacoubieh in Idlib province, close to Turkey's border with western Syria in Idlib province.
The region is still controlled by international jihadist groups, including an offshoot of Daesh, which is also known as ISIS.
PERESECUTED BY EXTREMISTS
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."
Lutfi noted, "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..."
Lufti emphasized 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."
"We don't have an exact statistic of how many Christians there are now. I assure you, maybe more than half of the entire Christian population left the country, unfortunately."
The Report of the UN's Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic in early October gave an indication of what civilians in Idlib face.
"In its recent report on Idlib Governorate and western Aleppo, covering the period between November 2019 and June 2020, the Commission documented 52 emblematic attacks by all parties that led to civilian casualties and/or damage to civilian infrastructure," said the report.
"These battles were marked by war crimes, including launching indiscriminate attacks resulting in death or injury to civilians.
"Continuing previously established patterns, the Commission also documented attacks against medical facilities, schools and markets, which deprived scores of civilians of access to health care, education and food.
The battles displaced nearly one million people and the commission found that progovernment forces may have perpetrated the crimes against humanity of forcible transfer, murder and other inhumane acts92 during the offensives on Ma'arrat al-Nu'man (second half of December 2019), Ariha (29 January 2020), Atarib (between 10 and 14 February 2020) and Darat Izzah (17 February 2020)
"When civilians fled, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham pillaged their homes. In restive areas under its control, members of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham also committed the war crimes of murder; of passing sentences and carrying out executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court; and of cruel treatment, ill-treatment and torture," said the report