Christmas joy missing in rubble of Syria town

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Despite the return of relative calm to the capital and its surroundings, Arbin residents are still hesitant to come back. (AFP)
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Rubble from razed buildings spills out into deserted streets lined with burned-out cars. (AFP)
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Retaken in the spring by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad during a brutal offensive to capture the Eastern Ghouta area, Arbin is everything but festive. (AFP)
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The town looks more apocalyptic than merry. (AFP)
Updated 24 December 2018
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Christmas joy missing in rubble of Syria town

  • Before the war, Arbin was home to some 3,000 Christian residents
  • The mood is gloomy is Arbin, but just a few kilometers away, bright colored lights illuminate the streets of Damascus

ARBIN, Syria: With Christmas approaching, Nabil Al-Aash dusts off religious books as he attempts to tidy up the war-scarred Saint George Church in the town of Arbin, northeast of the Syrian capital Damascus.
Retaken in the spring by forces loyal to President Bashar Assad during a brutal offensive to capture the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta, Arbin is anything but festive.
Rubble from razed buildings spills out into deserted streets lined with burned-out cars and twisted scraps of metal. The town looks more apocalyptic than merry.
Arbin’s only church, Saint George’s flame-scorched walls and empty nave are a testament to the seven-year conflict that has left more than 360,000 people dead and displaced millions.
“There’s no celebration here. Christian homes are destroyed and their church is destroyed,” says Aash.
The restoration of the Greek Orthodox church, built in 1873, “will take a lot of time, money and effort,” he adds.
“There’s not a single icon left — all of them were either burned or stolen,” said the 55-year-old, approaching the altar.
“We also found broken crosses.”
Aash fled Arbin in 2012 as fighting engulfed the town, plagued afterwards for years by violence and a crippling siege imposed by Damascus.
But after regime forces retook the area, he decided to return home.
“I grew up in this church, I spent all of my Christmases here... it was once overflowing with joy,” he remembers.
“I almost collapsed when I saw it.”
For him, the festive spirit “won’t return until the residents and parishioners do.”
After a blistering offensive backed by Russian air power, government forces in April retook Eastern Ghouta, a key rebel foothold at the gates of Damascus.
The military push and years of shelling flattened large swathes of the area and forced most of its pre-war population to flee.
Before the war, Arbin was home to some 3,000 Christian residents, according to Mayor Khalil Tohme.
But despite the return of relative calm to the capital and its surroundings, Arbin residents are still hesitant to come back.
“We are only five Christians who regularly visit the town, the others go from time to time... most of their homes are destroyed,” says Aash.
A few dozen meters away from the church, Joseph Hakimeh directs a worker on a ladder as he puts the final touches to a freshly painted wall of a restored home.
The contractor is getting ready to hand the keys back to the owner, and is working on three other homes in addition to his own.
“We’re preparing to return as soon as services and infrastructure are ready, but that needs time,” he says.
Sitting on a can of paint, the 39-year-old yearns for the way things once were.
“I hope that next year everything will return to the way it was before — Christmas trees, decorations, carols and prayers,” he says.
The mood is gloomy is Arbin, but just a few kilometers away, bright colored lights illuminate the streets of Damascus.
A giant tree decorates Abbasiyyin Square, long avoided due to its proximity to the frontline with the former rebel stronghold.
Festive lights and garlands also decorate homes in the predominantly Christian neighborhood of Kassaa in eastern Damascus.
But not everyone is in the Christmas spirit.
Since Riad Rajiha’s family arrived to the area after fleeing Arbin in 2012, they have not had the heart to celebrate.
“We left our Christmas tree behind, so we missed out on decorating,” says Rajiha, his eyes brimming with tears.
“What’s the meaning of decorating a tree in a house that’s not yours?“
Leafing through an old photo album, he revisits pictures of the Saint George Church in all its former glory.
Large chandeliers hang from its high ceilings, its wooden pews packed with parishioners.
“Our roots are there and our memories are there,” says the 66-year-old, who dreams of celebrating the holiday in Arbin with his grandchildren.
“I was born in Arbin, I lived in Arbin, and I hope to be die and be buried there.”


Turkey: EU sanctions over gas drilling ‘worthless’

Updated 16 July 2019
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Turkey: EU sanctions over gas drilling ‘worthless’

  • EU foreign ministers said they are suspending talks with Turkey over air transport agreement
  • They backed EU’s proposal to decrease financial assistance to Turkey

ANKARA: Turkey on Tuesday rejected as “worthless” an initial set of sanctions approved by the European Union against Ankara, and vowed to send a new vessel to the eastern Mediterranean to reinforce its efforts to drill for hydrocarbons off the island of Cyprus.
EU foreign ministers on Monday approved sanctions against Turkey over its drilling for gas in waters where EU member Cyprus has exclusive economic rights. They said they were suspending talks on an air transport agreement, as well as high-level Turkey-EU dialogues, and would call on the European Investment Bank to review its lending to the country.
They also backed a proposal by the EU’s executive branch to reduce financial assistance to Turkey for next year. The ministers warned that additional “targeted measures” were being worked on to penalize Turkey, which started negotiations to join the EU in 2005.
Speaking at a news conference in Macedonia, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the sanctions aimed to “appease” Cyprus and were of “no importance.”
“The EU needs us concerning the migration issue or other issues,” he said. “They will come to us and hold contacts; there is no escaping that.”
“They know that the decisions they took cannot be applied,” he said. “They were forced to take the worthless decisions under pressure from the Greek Cypriots and Greece.”
Cavusoglu added: “If you take such decisions against Turkey, we will increase our activities. We have three ships in the eastern Mediterranean, will with send a fourth.”
Earlier, the Turkish Foreign Ministry criticized the EU for ignoring the rights of Turkish Cypriots and accused the 28-nation bloc of “prejudice and bias.”
It added that Turkey was determined to protect its rights and the rights of Turkish Cypriots.
Two Turkish vessels escorted by warships are drilling for gas on either end of ethnically divided Cyprus. A third Turkish exploration ship is also in the area. Turkey insists that it has rights over certain offshore zones and that Turkish Cypriots have rights over others.
Cyprus was split along ethnic lines in 1974 when Turkey invaded in the wake of a coup by supporters of union with Greece. A Turkish Cypriot declaration of independence is recognized only by Turkey, which keeps more than 35,000 troops in the breakaway north. Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, but only the internationally recognized south enjoys full membership benefits.
Cypriot officials accuse Turkey of using the minority Turkish Cypriots in order to pursue its goal of exerting control over the eastern Mediterranean region.
The Cypriot government says it will take legal action against any oil and gas companies supporting Turkish vessels in any repeat attempt to drill for gas. Cyprus has already issued around 20 international arrest warrants against three international companies assisting one of the two Turkish vessels now drilling 68 kilometers off the island’s west coast.