ISTANBUL — The growing presence of fighters from radical Islamic groups battling the Syrian regime is increasing pressure on Syria’s ancient Assyrian Christians, many of whom are fleeing to neighboring Turkey.
At the Mort Smuni Church in the Turkish city of Mardin near the Syrian border, the service of St. John the Baptist is part of Advent, when an individual saint is celebrated every Sunday in the run-up to Christmas.
The members of the small Assyrian Christian community gathered for services are joined by fellow Assyrians who have fled from Syria, just a couple hours drive down the road.
After the services, Father Gabriel meets with church community elders to discuss how to assist the growing numbers of refugees.
Currently, they are supporting over a hundred families. He says the rise of Islamic groups fighting the Syrian regime is forcing many Christians to flee.
"In Syria, the conditions for Christians is very bad," he said. "Last week they have kidnapped 12 nuns and, before, two bishops, and they killed many, many Christians and kidnap many persons and told them you must be Muslims. "
Isa Davut and his family fled to Syria earlier this year, after jihadists took control of the town they lived in.
"The reason Christians no longer feel safe is that all these radical Islamic groups, jihadis, started to come to Syria," he said. "Where we live, 10 churches have been burned down. They started to threaten Christians in the town we live. When the local priest was executed, we decided to leave."
The Davut family lives just a short walk from the church. Home for the family of five is just one living room and a small back room. There is water on the floor from heavy rain leaking in from the roof. The back room is unusable because of the water. This Christmas will be a difficult one, with images of Christmas back in Syria lingering in their memories. Isa’s son Jorg explains.
"I want to go back home as soon as possible, to be back with my friends, especially now that it's Christmas," Isa’s son Jorg said. "Christmas is a special time, the streets would be illuminated with lights and everyone would decorate their doors. It was a time everyone came together in peace. This year, my heart is broken."
But, returning home is unlikely. Isa says safety for him and his family now lies in Sweden, where they have relatives.
Back at the Mort Smuni Church, Father Gabriel reflects on the magnitude of the events. He sees the current exodus of Christians from Syria as another chapter in the demise of ancient Christian populations in the region.
"Before war in Iraq, there were about 2.5 million Christians, but now I think only 500,000 people [Christians] staying in Iraq," he said. "It will be Syria also. Many, many persons are trying to go out of Syria to European countries."
Along with prayer, Father Gabriel and the rest of Mardin’s Assyrian Christian community are working hard to prepare for the expected increasing numbers of fellow Christians.