On Christmas Day, Michel Butros al-Jisri, one of the last Christians in the Syrian city of Idlib, did not attend services because the Islamist rebels who control the area had long since closed the church. He also did not gather with friends and relatives to celebrate around a tree because almost all of his fellow Christians died or fled during Syria’s 10-year civil war.
Instead, Mr al-Jisri said, he went to the Christian cemetery in the city, which no one uses anymore, to sit among the graves of his ancestors and mark the day quietly, all by himself. .
“Who am I going to celebrate the party with? The walls?” He asked. “I don’t want to celebrate if I’m alone.”
Mr. al-Jisri, who is 90 years old, stooped and almost deaf but still quite robust, is a living relic of one of the many once vibrant Christian communities in the Middle East that seem to be on the verge of extinction.
Communities across the Middle East and North Africa – some of which have their roots in the early days of Christianity – have struggled for decades against wars, poverty and persecution. A 2019 UK government report found that Christians in the Middle East and North Africa had fallen to less than 4% of the population, from over 20% a century ago.
The past decade has been particularly brutal as upheaval has left Christians in parts of Iraq, Syria and elsewhere under the control of Islamist militants. They were subject to the whims of their new rulers, who forbade their religious practices, seized their property, and sometimes even eliminated them.
In nine decades, Mr. al-Jisri has gone from being a member of a Christian community in Idlib that easily integrated into the social fabric of the city to one of only three known Christians left there.
He was born in 1931 in Idlib, a city surrounded by olive groves and farmland in northwestern Syria, one of four children, he said. His mother died when he was 2 months old, and his father soon remarried and had two more sons.
Although Idlib’s Christians did not rival the numbers of major cities like Aleppo, whose Christian population also plummeted during the war, there was a small, vibrant community in the provincial capital and nearby villages, living in sides of the region’s Muslim majority with little friction.
Mr al-Jisri’s family were Greek Orthodox, like most Christians in Idlib, and worshiped at St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, a stone chapel with a steeple and rich in icons, built in 1886 near the center -city. A National Evangelical Church was built around the corner years later.
Members of his community worked as jewelers, doctors, lawyers, and merchants, and even sold alcohol, though it was religiously forbidden, to their Muslim neighbors.
At Easter and Christmas, the priest opened his house to Muslim and Christian sympathizers, according to Fayez Qawsara, a local historian. A huge Christmas tree in a square near the church drew crowds of Muslim and Christian children who came to receive gifts, said Father Ibrahim Farah, Mr al-Jisri’s former priest.
For many decades, Mr. al-Jisri worked for the church as caretaker of the cemetery, keeping it clean, repairing fences and organizing funerals. He received families in mourning and prepared coffee for those who paid homage to him.
Syria has been ruled for more than 50 years by the al-Assad family, and under Hafez, who died in 1990, and his son, Bashar, who has since served as Syria’s president, violence between religious communities was rare.
But that system, and the life Mr. al-Jisri had long known, crumbled after Syria’s civil war began in 2011, shaking the government’s grip on large swaths of territory.
In 2015, Islamist rebels stormed the city of Idlib. As they took control, they killed a Christian, Elias al-Khal, and his son, Najib, who were selling alcohol, al-Jisri said.
Soon after, they abducted Father Ibrahim and detained him for 19 days, the priest said. By the time he was released, the church library and archives had been looted and most of the approximately 1,200 Christians who had remained in the town until the rebels arrived had already fled or were about to to leave.
“News spreads easily,” Mr. al-Jisri said. “They put their families in cars and drove off.”
The city’s new rulers closed the church and banned public displays of Christian devotion, further fueling the exodus. Once the Christians left, the rebels took over their homes and shops.
“We used to see Idlib as a beautiful mosaic,” Father Ibrahim said by phone from Toronto, where he moved after fleeing Syria. “Now it’s a complete mess.”
Christians made up around 10% of Syria’s population of 21 million before the war began in 2011. Today they make up around 5%, with less than 700,000 remaining, according to groups that track the persecution of Christians around the world.
With the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Christians also began to leave that country in droves, and their population had fallen to less than 500,000 in 2015 from 1.5 million in 2003.
The flight of Christians from Idlib was particularly extreme and by the end of 2015, Father Ibrahim said, only five Christians remained.
Two have since died.
One of those who remain is a woman who prefers to keep her life private. Another, Nabil Razzouq, 72, is a retired widower whose four adult children live elsewhere in Syria or abroad. He said he chose to stay in Idlib because the war stole Syrians’ time and he also didn’t want to lose his home.
“If I wasted time and space, I would go crazy,” he said. “That’s why I clung to the place.”
Idlib is Syria’s last province still mostly controlled by rebels, and more than a third of the country’s 4.4 million northwest residents fled there during the war or were bussed there by the government after the conquest of their cities.
Mr al-Jisri said he had not entered the church, helped at a funeral or had a drink of alcohol since before the rebels took power.
“Now there is no one left,” he said.
Members of his former congregation still pay him an honorary salary, which puts food on his table. He lives in a one-room house where a single gas burner doubles as a kitchen, floor cushions double as a living room, and his bedroom is a mattress stuck against the wall.
He has a heater, but can’t get fuel. It has a television and a radio but no electricity.
Above the cupboard where he keeps his teacups hang faded photographs of deceased relatives, crucifixes and icons of Jesus and Mary.
When guests pass by, he serves them tea or coffee in his small dirt courtyard, where the call to prayer from a nearby mosque echoes throughout the day.
“We live, thank God,” he said. “We don’t owe anyone anything and no one owes us anything.”
Mr. al-Jisri never married and all but one of his siblings are deceased, he said. He thinks his surviving brother lives in the United States, but they are not in contact.
He has nieces and nephews he would like to visit in Aleppo, about an hour’s drive away in normal times. But he hasn’t made the trip for years, as it would require crossing a hostile front line between rebel and government forces.
So he spends his days wandering the town market, chatting with neighbors or visiting friends – or the children of deceased friends.
He doesn’t mind that they are all Muslims.
“We are all brothers,” he said.
Some days he goes to the cemetery where he worked for so many years, just to check. Once busy with the comings and goings of families, it is now deserted and sometimes sits for hours alone with the tombstones.
But despite the collapse of his community, he said he never considered leaving Syria.
“Why should I?” he said. “I have friends that I love very much, nobody bothers me and I don’t bother anyone.”
Churches in Idlib are still closed, even though the Islamist group that controls the region, as part of its effort to play down its more extremist past, has allowed Christians from nearby villages to resume services in their churches.
But that did not convince Mr. al-Jisri’s congregation to return.
“I wish they would come back,” he said.
His closest friends are the domestic pigeons he keeps in a room next to his house. As they flit around him in the yard cooing, he throws birdseed and sings to himself old Arabic songs about love and a country that hasn’t always loved him back:
O treasure of the Levant, your love is on my mind,
The sweetest time I’ve spent with you,
You said goodbye and promised me,
Don’t forget me, I won’t forget you,
No matter how many years and nights you’ve been gone.