By Angie Leventis Lourgos
Each time Edeette Chukro crosses herself at St. Mary’s Assyrian Church in Roselle, she prays for her brother and sisters left behind in war-torn Syria, where it is no longer considered safe to make the sign of the cross outside their village.
On Sunday, Chukro, 51, will celebrate her first Easter in the United States, free of religious persecution and violence. Her sister-in-law — a U.S. citizen — previously filed paperwork to help bring Chukro to the U.S., and she arrived in Chicago with her family in July. They traveled nine hours by bus to Damascus, fearful during frequent stops and searches by armed men they say were part of the terrorist group Al-Nusra Front. They spent a week just over the border in Lebanon before their paperwork was processed in Jordan.
Easter is bittersweet for those seeking refuge like Chukro and her family, who were among the Christian minority in Syria. They fear for their loved ones overseas. They worry their mass exodus will diffuse their culture and identity.
And they note the paradox in fleeing Syria, a cradle of ancient Christendom, in order to worship freely.
St. Paul, once a tormentor of Christians, was converted on the road to Damascus in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Aramaic, the ancient language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken in pockets of Syria today and is sprinkled in the Mass at St. Mary’s.
“Jesus went to Syria to preach. St. Paul went to Syria to preach. St. Peter went to Syria to preach,” said Bishop Paulus Benjamin, a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East, who is based in Chicago. “There’s a rich Christian history there. Unfortunately, Christians now must leave.”
Droves of Syrians of all ethnicities and faiths are leaving as the civil war continues in its fourth year, with more than 1,000 granted asylum in the United States since 2011 and more resettled here as refugees while overseas, according to federal statistics. Numbers aren’t broken down by ethnicity and religion, and a local count is incomplete, but the pews of St. Mary’s are dotted with parishioners seeking haven in Chicagoland or praying for relatives back home and a recently scattered diaspora.
“My homeland doesn’t leave my mind,” Chukro said on Palm Sunday, through an interpreter. “We are like the tree which is plucked from its original root and planted in another land.”
But gazing at the palm-adorned altar, as the crowd swelled to more than 1,000 singing centuries-old hymns in her native Assyrian tongue, Chukro said she found a certain comfort.
“I felt secure,” she said. “I felt like I was back in my village.”
After church, Chukro joined female relatives in the kitchen of her brother’s Bartlett home to wrap rice in grapevine leaves for a Lenten dinner. The scent of anise from freshly baked klecha, date-filled Easter cookies, lingered in the adjoining den where the men talked of life back in their village of Tel Jomma, also called Halmon.
One of her brothers, 58-year-old Mikhael Chukro, recalls sharing his Easter feasts of lamb and meatballs and dikwah — a yogurt-based stew — with Muslim friends. They in turn would have him at their table to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan.
The various faiths of Syria have generally coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years, he said, mourning the loss of that peace for everyone in Syria.
He thinks the Christian minority — about 10 percent of the population — has become collateral damage caught between rebel forces and President Bashar Assad’s regime since the nation burst into civil war in 2011. The conflict has spread in the last year or so to more rural places like Tel Jomma, a once-prosperous Assyrian Christian village on the banks of the Khabour River, whose population is said to have dwindled from around 4,000 to 200.
Unlike other more consolidated uprisings in Kosovo or the former Soviet Union, the opposition in Syria is a complex mix of ideologies and infighting, from secularists to religious extremists, nonviolent scholars to terrorists, neighborhood groups to foreign fighters.
“The opposition in Syria is very fragmented, it’s not unified,” said Daniel Serwer, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
The nonprofit Open Doors USA this year ranked Christian persecution in Syria as third most extreme in the world, behind North Korea and Somalia.
In December, rebels abducted about a dozen Greek Orthodox nuns from their monastery in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula and released them unharmed last month as part of a prisoner exchange where female captives were simultaneously let go by the government. The authoritarian regime said the nuns were kidnapped in an act of intimidation against Christians; rebels said they were protecting the nuns from government shelling. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based monitoring group, identified the militants from Al-Nusra Front, a terrorist group the U.S. Department of State has linked to al-Qaida.
Regular folk are not immune from the terror. Mikhael Chukro said his brother-in-law was recently farming his fields when men pulled up in a car, blindfolded him and held him captive for six hours until relatives paid a ransom.
In Raqqa, a market town in the Euphrates basin about three hours from the Chukro family’s village, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant announced in February that Christians would be forced to either convert to Islam, pay a tax to remain Christian or face death, according the U.S. State Department.
“It is the end,” said Mikhael Chukro, an elementary school teacher back home, who immigrated here with his wife and three children in early March and is now living with his brother’s family in Bartlett.
Year after year, sisters Ashorina and Ornina Adam have celebrated the Easter vigil in the middle of the night, as Christians in Syria have for centuries.
In their village of Tel Tamer — just a few miles from the Chukro family’s village — everyone would gather in darkness outside the church. At midnight they’d light up the night with beeswax candles, spreading the flame to one another and proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.
The tradition was suspended last year. Mass at night was deemed too dangerous, so the paschal service was held at daybreak.
“That is all gone,” said Ashorina Adam, 20, through an interpreter. She and her 18-year-old sister arrived in September and are living in Elgin with relatives. “It doesn’t feel like Easter.”
She said young men back in the village have stopped going to church and instead stand guard, armed, outside to protect the women and children inside. When traveling, the sisters couldn’t wear their crosses and were forced to cover their arms and heads. They say their 21-year-old brother was stabbed in the street during fighting but survived his injuries; the family frequently awakened to shelling in the middle of the night.
Around Ashorina Adam’s wrist is a charm of St. Charbel, a Lebanese priest and monk. She said he protects her while she’s far from home.
It was a gift from her mother, who is with the rest of her family in Lebanon, a nation struggling to handle the recent influx of Syrian refugees that surpassed 1 million this month, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency. Hundreds of thousands more have fled to Jordan, Turkey, European nations and Iraq.
The Rev. Tawer Andrious, of St. Mary’s, fears for the future of the Assyrian language and heritage, which unites Assyrian Christians with ancestral homelands in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Without a safe motherland, the pastor says his congregants will be rootless.
He was born in Iraq and left in 2002 just before the fall of Saddam Hussein. He said friends and relatives rejoiced, hoping the shift would bring prosperity and democracy. But the Christian population there in the last decade has dwindled to less than half, according to some reports, as the religious minority flees terrorism and oppression. On Christmas, more than 30 people were killed in bombings in Christian parts of Baghdad. One was a car bomb that burst as worshippers left church.
Many Assyrians fear Syria is headed in the same direction.
“I think this future is dark for our people,” Andrious said.
The Adam sisters applied for asylum status in the United States in September. If their request is granted, they don’t know if they’ll be able to return to Syria. Almost everyone they know has left or is trying to escape.
But for their first Easter in Chicagoland, they plan to once again worship at midnight, as Christians in Syria have for centuries.
They intend to flood the darkness with light, chanting: Ghyamta d’maran hoya brikhta! Christ is risen!
“Everything is good,” Ashorina Adam said of her new home. “There’s order. Peace.”