The villages of Knayeh and Yacoubieh, in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border in western Syria, still find themselves under the control of jihadist groups. Here the fearsome Islamic caliphate still holds sway; the sharia is the law, women are forced to wear veils, Christian properties have been confiscated and Christian symbols such as crosses torn down.

Among the local inhabitants who have remained in their homes despite the terrible situation, there are an estimated 300 Christian families of different denominations and ethnic groups. Two Franciscan friars, Luai Bsharat, aged 40, and 67-year-old Hanna Jallouf, have also stayed on here to minister to them.

The Christians remaining in these areas are facing persecution, fear, violence and danger, and even death. So the continuing presence of the Christians in these villages, and of the two Franciscan friars, says much about their heroic commitment. “In spite of the difficulties, Father Luai and Father Hanna have stayed on there because they believe that this region should not be abandoned. For it is close to Antioch, where Saint Paul began his travels, spreading the Word of God”, explains Father Firas Lutfi OFM, who is Custodian of the Province of Saint Paul for the Franciscans of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. He is speaking to the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation ACN International.

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