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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia

Putin withdraws forces from Syria

QLAYAA, Lebanon: In the Lebanese Christian border village of Qlayaa, the priest urged his parish to keep the Christmas spirit alive despite clashes between Hezbollah and Israel forcing many to flee. Nestled among lush, green fields and flowing olive groves, Qlayaa has echoed to the sound of bombing on an almost daily basis since Oct 7.

“Of course we are upset and bothered by the war ... but we want to feel the joy of Christmas,” father Pierre Rai told a dwindling number of parishioners in Qlayaa’s Maronite Saint George Church. “So long as we have decided to remain in this village, and in other southern Lebanon border villages, we must live and enjoy each thing in its right time.”

For nearly three months, Zionist rockets have been falling close to Qlayaa, which lies less than five kilometers (three miles) from the border. So far, however, the Christian villages in the area have been spared destruction.

Since the Zionist entity launched its attack on Gaza, more than 140 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including more than a dozen civilians, three of them journalists, according to an AFP tally. Despite the violence, the church has put up lights, a life-sized manger and is planning recitals and activities for the community’s children. A massive Christmas tree decorated with red ornaments sits in the village’s empty square, with reindeer statues nearby.

‘Rather die here’

Lebanon’s south is home to a plethora of religious communities, but it is mainly dominated by the Shiite Hezbollah movement. The region was battered by a years-long Zionist occupation that ended in 2000 and again in the 2006 war between Hezbollah and the Zionist entity.

Residents along the border are used to “difficult times”, said father Antonios Farah, “but we have decided that this year we will celebrate Christmas as usual”. “This is our way to pray for peace,” he said, dressed in a black robe and sitting in the church.

The streets of the small village are usually bustling with visitors around Christmas, when many of those living abroad return. But this year, “only about 60 percent of the village population is still here” with none of the expatriates coming home, he said, adding that the streets were deserted after nightfall.

According to updated figures from the International Organization for Migration, the hostilities have displaced more than 72,000 people in Lebanon, most of them in the country’s south. Qlayaa resident Suzy Salameh, 47, has put up a voluminous tree in her home and said she was praying for peace. “We are trying to celebrate Christmas despite ... the war, the bombings,” she said, standing beside a conifer decorated with silver ornaments, garlands and purple lights. “God willing, the birth of Jesus will bring about peace in our country and in all the countries around us.”

But not everyone in the village was so optimistic. In a house close to the church, Layla Wana sat alone with her husband under a big Christmas tree. “We’re not feeling the Christmas spirit at all,” said Wana, 67, dressed in a black tracksuit. “Some of our children are abroad, others are in Beirut,” she said. “But we will remain in our house and we will not leave, even if it means we will die here.” – AFP

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