In the heart of Damascus, more than 1,000 people attended Christmas mass on Monday, praying for peace to return to Syria, after almost two years of bloodshed.

"I pray that peace and safety returns to the hearts of all Syrians," said Heba Shawi, 24, a Catholic attending mass at Notre Dame church in the Damascus district of Qusur.

"I hope the smiles come back to children's faces."

On other years, majority Christian areas in central Damascus were heavily decorated for the festive season. This year, only one Nativity crib is on display in the city.

Though Christmas mass is usually held at midnight, the absence of security in Damascus, especially at night, prompted organisers to hold this year's service at 6:00 pm.

But despite the violence raging just kilometres (miles) away, the faithful arrived at the church on time. In fact, the church was so full that some had to stand.

Christians of all ages, most of them dressed in black, stood among their families as they prayed.

Insurance broker Riad Ghanem, 45, went to church with his wife and their two daughters, aged 12 and 15.

"We have a small tree this year, and beyond attending mass, we won't be celebrating," said Ghanem.

"The festive season is very sad this year. But we thank God despite everything."

Hassan Khoury, a 51-year-old church worker, said he felt the same way.

"In previous years, Christmas was a real feast. This year, we feel no joy," he told AFP.

"With death so present everywhere in the country, we cannot celebrate. But we need to pray until we get out of this crisis."

Dressed in a fur coat, 65-year-old Jeannette said she came to church "to pray to the Lord, because only can bring a solution" for Syria.

The church entrance was thinly decorated, a far cry from the usually ornate facade that welcomes the faithful.

But a donations box at the entrance gives away the sea-change that Syria has suffered ever since the outbreak of an anti-regime revolt in March last year, which morphed into an insurgency after the authorities unleashed a brutal campaign of repression against dissent.

The box is marked: "Gifts for the displaced. Thank you very much".

There are some 1.8 million Christians in Syria, most of them Greek Orthodox.

Many Christians have remained neutral in a conflict estimated to have killed more than 44,000 people. Most church leaders have taken President Bashar al-Assad's side, for fear of the rise of Islamic extremism.

On Saturday, Syria's new Greek Orthodox leader called for Christians to remain in the country despite the bloodshed.

Patriarch Yuhanna X Yazigi also appealed to warring parties to renounce violence "in all its forms" and to start a process of dialogue.

In his first news conference since succeeding Ignatius IV Hazim, who died on December 5, he said: "We Christians are here in the country and we will stay here.

"We believe that Christ is always present in this region, which is where Christianity was born."

The patriarch sought to play down dangers faced by Christians.

"What is happening to us is happening to others too. We are in the same situation as everyone else, Muslims and Christians, shoulder to shoulder, facing the difficulties," he said.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]