AMMAN: A reportedly Russian-fired missile severely damaged Idlib city’s only church on Wednesday, one of the last remaining vestiges of a once-thriving community where Christians “happily coexisted.”

The airstrike collapsed the outside wall of the nineteenth-century Church of the Virgin Mary, once a cornerstone of the Idlib city Christian quarter, while destroying the marble iconostasis—a wall of icons and religious paintings unique to eastern Orthodox churches—in the church interior.

Prior to the war, around 2,000 Syrian Christians—mostly Orthodox and a few Anglican families—filled the pews of the Church of the Virgin Mary, which dates back to 1886 and the Ottoman Empire. Today, few Christians remain.

“There are only one or two elderly Christian families left,” George Michel Jabbour, a former Christian Idlib resident who now lives abroad, told Syria Direct on Thursday.

  The Church of the Virgin Mary on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of George Jabbour.

Idlib’s Christian community largely fled en masse in the early days of the war; however, in 2015, a second wave of emigration occurred when the Victory Army—a rebel alliance led by Jaish Fatah a-Sham (formerly the Al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat a-Nusra) and Ahrar a-Sham—entered the provincial capital.

While some contend that Christians fled as hardline Islamist groups gained ground, others point to the Assad regime’s attempts to deliberately stoke religious tensions.

“When the Victory Army entered Idlib, the regime told us that the rebels would slaughter us,” Wael Ahmed, a Christian and former member of the Red Crescent told Syria Direct on Thursday.

“They fanned the flames of fear among the Christian community,” he added.

 The church’s exterior. Photo courtesy of George Jabbour.

Syria Direct interviewed four Idlib city residents, Christian and Muslim, who denounced the Assad regime’s exploitation of identity politics. 

“The regime may say that it is the protector of minorities in an attempt to garner support,” Mutia Jalal, a member of the Idlib city Civil Defense, told Syria Direct, “but minorities felt the full brunt of the regime’s brutality just as much as any other group.”

“Christians happily coexisted in the city,” former Idlib resident George Michel Jabbour said.

“But the regime succeeded in scaring minorities…unfortunately that mindset is still entrenched.”