A rebel fighter stands beside an Idlib church in 2012. Photo by Javier Manzano/AFP.

AMMAN: The thief was probably just a teenager—around 14 years old, Abu Elias* estimates—but his gun signaled an allegiance to one of the influential hardline Islamist brigades that had come to control much of the Idlib countryside after the early years of the Syrian uprising.

Abu Elias, a Christian landowner, spotted the fighter indifferently picking through his fertile fields and tried to intervene.

“‘My son, take from the land and eat’,” he remembers saying, “‘but don’t ruin anything’.”

The response was violent, full of threats and promises of reprisals—and Abu Elias could do little other than stand aside.

Soon after, Abu Elias fled his home—located in a cluster of historically Christian villages on the outskirts of Idlib province’s Jisr a-Shughour—only to later learn from neighbors that his land had subsequently been seized by Jabhat a-Nusra, Al-Qaeda’s former Syria affiliate that was later rebranded into hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS).  

It came as no surprise to the Idlib native, who recalled the earlier incident to Syria Direct from his new home in government-held Aleppo city, where he works repairing household appliances.

“This isn’t unusual,” he says. “Our land was even stolen right in front of us. [These fighters] claim our livelihood is rightfully theirs .”

But there have been more expropriations since then, including in Idlib’s eponymous provincial capital—about 30 kilometers northeast of Jisr a-Shughour—which is also known for its historic Christian community. There too, HTS has confiscated properties belonging to displaced Christian families, according to several residents as well as opposition- and government-aligned media outlets.

Syria Direct could not independently verify the claims, and both current and former residents of Idlib are reticent to discuss the matter for fear of repercussions from local armed factions.

Two HTS representatives, including one official in the HTS-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), meanwhile deny the allegations and accuse the media of exaggerating exceptional cases.

Christians celebrate Palm Sunday in the Idlib village of al-Qunya in 2013. Photo courtesy of Qunya Village.

The reported confiscations of Christian properties in Idlib province nonetheless fall into a longstanding string of discriminatory abuses—including attacks on churches and kidnappings—committed against a fading minority community in Syria’s rebel-held northwest.

They also reflect how property—homes, businesses, land—has been routinely exploited by almost every armed actor in the seven-year Syrian conflict, as residents flee homes and sectarian lines solidify in their wake.

‘A new modus vivendi

In the summers of a not-so-distant past, Abu Elias remembers how Idlib’s Christian-majority villages used to swell with thousands of holidayers and seasonal workers eager to harvest the region’s wealth of crops.

Then, as the cold crept in each year, the streets of towns like al-Jdayde, al-Yaqoubiya and al-Qunya would empty as residents and visitors alike made for the coast, leaving just a few hundred people behind to fill the pews in a handful of churches scattered among the olive groves.

“Us youth would work in the cities for the winter, while the elderly men and women would always stay in town,” he recalls.

The ebb and flow he describes came to a standstill in the first years of the war, as rebels—including several hardline groups that follow an extreme interpretation of Islam—gradually advanced through the Idlib countryside and established their grip over the largely rural province.

Under the rule of Islamist rebels, Christian life has been largely relegated to the shadows: religious garments forbidden in the streets, crosses in public spaces removed or destroyed and church bells silenced.

These restrictions have also been accompanied by outbreaks of targeted sectarian violence—assassinations, abductions and attacks on religious institutions not unlike those seen in other minority communities that have fallen under extremist rule in Syria: Christian communities outside Idlib, as well as Druze and Shia Muslim communities around the country.

“Everything is done to make the [Christian] population feel unwelcome in their own land, and to push them to leave,” says Hélène Rey, a researcher focused on Christian communities in the Middle East, who works with the international human rights organization Christian Solidarity International (CSI).

Al-Qunya village in 2010. Photo courtesy of Qunya Village.

Many did. By mid-2015, when a coalition of Islamist factions captured Idlib city and established full rebel control of the province, the majority of Idlib’s Christians—followers of various denominations including the Greek Orthodox, Latin, Armenian and Catholic churches—had already fled their homes. Some sought relative safety in government-held areas of the country; others joined the millions of Syrian refugees seeking asylum abroad.

A number of towns in the province have been entirely emptied of their former Christian inhabitants as a result.

And in Idlib city, just one or two Christian families are thought to remain from a population that once numbered in the thousands.

But in the collection of majority-Christian villages where Abu Elias used to live, a small Christian community—Rey estimates a few hundred people at most—has stayed behind, despite most residents having fled since 2011.

There, the minority group shares in the uncertainty that characterizes life for all in Syria’s only remaining rebel-held region—where lawlessness often reigns and abductions are increasingly common—even as an eleventh-hour ceasefire deal staves off a pro-government offensive to capture the province.

And, between the outbreaks in what appear to be targeted attacks and abuses, there are times when the centuries-old Christian community is “mostly left alone,” Rey says, as long as they “abide by the rules and comply with their status as second-class citizens.”

“A new modus vivendi has been established,” she tells Syria Direct, one “rooted in fear.”

‘Spoils of war’

One of the fears expressed by residents of Idlib’s Christian villages who have decided to stay is that if they flee, their property—and often the agricultural livelihood that comes with it—will be lost.

“Some older Christians stayed behind and took on the burden for the sake of the land, so as not to let it to fall into other people’s hands,” says Jamil Diarbakerli, director of the Sweden-based Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights, which has documented various abuses against Christian communities across Syria.

A church in al-Qunya in early 2012. Photo courtesy of Qunya Village.

The fear he describes is reflected in the stories of those, like Abu Elias, who say their land was taken long ago. Recent reports—including in pro-government Russian media as well as pro-opposition outlets—also claim that HTS previously issued statements suggesting that “Christian properties are spoils of war, and they will be seized.”

Other reports claim that notices were issued calling on Christian landowners in Idlib city—most of whom are no longer present in the province—to visit the so-called Office of Properties and Spoils affiliated with HTS within a period of three days. The reason appeared unclear, but was purportedly a warning of forthcoming seizures.

Abu Taeb, a media official with the SSG, the HTS-affiliated civil authority that governs and provides services in areas controlled by the group, meanwhile told Syria Direct that there has been no official decision regarding properties owned by Christians, and that reported notices may have been related to particular, isolated incidents.

“If you found any individual cases, they are a result of personal contentions or complaints presented to the [SSG’s] Ministry of Justice,” he told Syria Direct earlier this month.

“No citizen’s asset or property has been seized,” he said, adding that issue has been “blown out of proportion” by the media.

Syria Direct could not reach the SSG’s Ministry of Justice for comment.

Even so, three current Muslim residents of Idlib city tell Syria Direct that they have directly faced, or are aware of instances of, expropriation taking place at the hands of HTS and its affiliates.

According to Ibrahim Hassan, who rents a Christian-owned shop within the city, he used to send money transfers to the landlord, now in Damascus, without a problem.

More than a month ago, however, he says HTS seized the property, refusing to recognize the agreed-upon contract and demanding that the owner present himself in person to verify the deal—a request unlikely to be fulfilled considering the frontlines that separate the two signatories.

Easter celebrations at the St. Joseph church al-Qunya village in 2018. Photo courtesy of Eva Koulouriotis.

“The shop is still open,” Hassan notes, “but now I have to pay the rent to [HTS], not the owner.”

Another Idlib city resident, Sameer al-Abed, tells a similar story. About two months ago, the hardline faction seized a handful of shops in the city’s market, as well as a home that all belonged to a Christian from the area who had been displaced.

“They say it’s to protect [properties],” he tells Syria Direct, but then HTS fighters “start taking rent themselves.”  

Abdelrahman al-Idlibi, a former lawyer and Idlib city resident, says that the few Christians who do remain in the provincial capital are largely left alone, even as vacated homes have been seized and turned over to displaced Syrians or rebel fighters.

“There are just two families in Idlib [city] left,” he tells Syria Direct. “No one touches them or their property.”

‘Expropriation has become a weapon’

Property confiscations are not a new experience for Christian communities in Syria’s northwest, or Syrians more broadly. The conflict has seen more than six million people displaced, with their homes often left vacant and vulnerable to the will of armed rebel groups as well as the Syrian government and its allies.

Confiscations have crossed ethnic as well as sectarian lines, and have been committed by parties on nearly all sides of the conflict.

“Expropriation has become a weapon of war, and a powerful agent to cement the demographic shifts that have happened…since the beginning of the war,” says CSI researcher Rey.

Examples are not hard to find. In rebel-held Afrin, properties of Kurdish residents who fled the region last spring were later distributed to displaced East Ghoutans, only to be seized by fighters again months later.

Meanwhile, in government-held areas, an arsenal of  legislation—including Law 10—has paved the way for the potential dispossession of millions.

But in rebel-held Idlib, where hardline Islamist militants have gradually come to dominate, recent reports of expropriations appear to provide further evidence that the properties of religious minorities are particularly vulnerable.

“Houses belonging to Christians or members of other minority communities are favored over houses of Muslims,” Rey says.  

At the same time, the dwindling space for human rights defenders and documentation in the rebel-held northwest makes verifying allegations of expropriations increasingly difficult.

“We tend to get conflicting information from Idlib,” says the Assyrian Monitor’s Diarbakerli, “especially because region is closed off, and is a place of many agendas.”

Diarbakerli adds that his organization has not been permitted to work on the ground, and that Idlib-based activists struggle to conduct documentation themselves given the impunity exercised by factions like HTS.   

“Unfortunately, only the language of war prevails there,” he tells Syria Direct.

Amid the difficulties associated with documentation, Rey notes that confirming allegations of an official HTS policy on seizures would likely have limited implications for Christians in the northwest.

“It probably wouldn’t change much in practice,” she says, “except in creating a more institutionalized way to deal with this matter and in spreading further fear among the Christian communities from Idlib.”   

‘Fear is holding them back’

As Christian life continues to eke out an existence in Idlib despite the ever-present risks, prospects of return for those who have already left appear to be slim.

“Many are thinking of return” dispossessed landowner Abu Elias says, “but fear is holding them back.”

There are concerns among the displaced community—not just about hardline rebels, but also the Syrian government and its allies who remain suspicious of those with ties to the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold.

“We’re afraid of the regime checkpoints and security issues,” he says. “They’ll ask us, ‘Why do you want to go back there?’”

So for now, Abu Elias remains in Aleppo—and relies on occasional contact with former Muslim neighbors back home for news of the community he left behind.

The Christians who stayed behind, meanwhile, have gone silent.

“They don’t tell us anything,” he says. “Not a word.”

*Current and former Idlib residents who spoke with Syria Direct for this report have been given pseudonyms to protect their security.

This report is part of Syria Direct’s Advanced Investigative Journalism Training and Reporting Project in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.