It’s over two years now since the beginnings of the Syrian civil war and yet it still continues to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. It’s a horrendous situation that only appears to get progressively worse. With an autocratic regime on one side and disparate rebel groups with mixed motivations and loyalties on the other with neither willing to back down or compromise, what hope can there be?
It’s hard to comprehend just how awful it must be for all those civilians in Syria who are trying to get on with their lives in the midst of the fighting, but the kidnap of the two metropolitan bishops in Aleppo on Sunday was a stark reminder of the hardships Christians living in Syria face. Their future is highly uncertain depending on the outcome of the war and how much power Islamists will ultimately obtain. Hearing about their abduction was upsetting, but that surprisingly quickly turned to joy as the news was reported through a number of usually reliable news channels that they had been freed. It did seem unlikely that they would have been released so quickly and that nagging suspicion was unfortunately confirmed on Wednesday as the news was shown to be unfounded. Those of us who are Christians know that the body of Christ includes all believers around the world and when one group suffers, we all share in their pain. It was therefore appropriate that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Archbishop of Westminster issued a joint statement yesterday expressing their grief at the news and reaching out to the Christian community in Syria:
‘We unreservedly support these Christian communities, rooted in and attached to the biblical lands, despite the many hardships. We respond to the call from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, and the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, urging churches worldwide to remain steadfast in the face of challenging realities and to bear witness to their faith in the power of love in this world.
‘We both continue to pray for a political solution to this tragic conflict that would stem the terrible violence and also empower all Syrians with their fundamental and inalienable freedoms. We also call for urgent humanitarian aid to reach all who are suffering. We pray that Syria can recapture its tradition of tolerance, rooted in faith and respect for faiths living side by side.’
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) have written that: Although several prominent Muslim clerics have been killed during the Syrian conflict, these kidnappings mark the first time senior Christian leaders have been targeted and are likely to heighten concerns amongst Syria’s Christian society regarding their future.
Certainly if you read the articles written this week on the devastating struggles Christians are facing by the BBC and Guardian, you get a strong sense that for the longsuffering Syrian Church there is an extreme sadness for the plight of their country that overrides any feelings of hate or revenge. There has been a church established in Syria since New Testament times and they have no intention of seeing it die despite an estimated 1000 Syrian Christians having been killed and 300,000-400,000 – possibly more than 25 percent of the total – either displaced within the country or now abroad having fled.
The Religious Liberty Partnership, which is a partnership of Christian organisations from over twenty countries (including CSW, Open Doors and Release International from the UK) focused on religious liberty, met in Istanbul on April 15th to discuss their response to the plight of Syrian Christians. In the subsequent statement issued they called on the worldwide church to write to the UN Special Envoy for Syria and ask him to pay particular attention to vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities. They also asked that churches participate with the Refugee Highway Partnership in World Refugee Sunday, June 23, 2013 and designate it as a special day of prayer for Christians in Syria and all those affected by the current crisis.
Barnabas Fund are also continuing to work with their Christian partners on the ground in Syria and have now raised over £1 million to provide food, baby milk powder, clothes, medicines and other practical items for those in most need.
The least those of us who are aware of the situation can do is pray. We pray because it unites us through God’s Holy Spirit with those who are suffering and because it works. We may not see the results immediately, but that doesn’t mean it is of no effect.
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress
(Psalm 46:1-3, 9-11)
In this letter from a leading pastor in Syria, he writes of the situation there, his hopes, fears and trust in God. He also asks for our prayers. It reminds us that even in the deepest darkness there is still hope and we must not let that hope die.
My people are hurting...
It was much unexpected turmoil. Not even in our wildest dreams did we imagine the violence that is sweeping across the country now. For many years Syria enjoyed peace and stability in the heart of the unstable Middle East. We were a safe haven for our neighbors. We received displaced people and refugees from other countries like Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and even from Somalia and other far away areas. Yet now the violence pushed the host people out of their homes, fleeing for their lives. Many are displaced internally and many others are external refugees living in the most humiliating circumstances, deprived of even shelter , clean water, power, food, and medical care. Millions are not sleeping in their own beds, forced out of their homes to find themselves with their children homeless and living in public parks or in the wilderness. Others are not sure if they or their children and loved ones will see the light of a new day, tens of thousands of families lost loved ones: a child, a father, a mother, or a husband. Hundreds of the injured died for lack of medical care. Thousands of children go to bed terrified of the sound of shelling. Hundreds of thousands are in camps in neighboring countries. My people are hurting. I can cry like Nehemiah because the walls of our cities are burnt and the people in great trouble and disgrace, I can weep like Jeremiah because of the intensity and the spread of evil, I can mourn like David because of the indiscriminate brutal killing of innocent people, children, women, elderly, youth subject to shelling or under the rubble of their homes. Neither fighting party is the true mother of this child, this country. Their worship of the idol of power and their desire to win is too cruel to care for the child they claim that they are fighting for. Innocent people are paying the heavy toll of this evil. It is gloomy, sad and painful.
The only good news is that the church is moving whole-heartedly to help relieve some of the suffering, and the Lord is surely opening hearts to receive the gospel.
We thank God because the Church is united across the country in prayer…
Thank God we are the CHURCH of the living God. We are here in this country at such a time in history not just to mourn, though mourning is certainly proper. We are here for a divine reason; we trust and rely on our sovereign loving Lord. We believe that we are in the midst of a spiritual war. In this country there are many who are much more effective than us militarily, politically, economically and socially, but none have the privilege of being effective in this spiritual battle like we are. We thank God because the Church is united across the country in prayer twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, praying for the glory of God to dwell in the Church, for an end to the bloodshed, for peace in the country, for keeping the church’s faithful witness, to reach out to the suffering, to share the divine cure of the gospel, to speak the word of the Lord in all boldness. Each lost soul is, to us, an eternal loss. We pray that the evil powers of darkness will be defeated in our land, the values of false religion will be exposed for what they are and despised and rejected, and for many souls to come to know the love and forgiveness of Christ and to enjoy His saving grace.
The Church is active in relief work…
While revenge, power and hatred are the worshiped gods and the highest values in a dirty sectarian political fight, by God’s grace we are sowing the seeds of love and forgiveness. The Church is active in relief work, trying to reach the suffering with the love of Christ. It is our battle to be a church that upholds biblical values and keeps its spiritual focus where our communities are deeply divided along sectarian lines and severely polarized politically. Yet, counting on the Lord’s power by the Holy Spirit we know that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
We decided to adopt the motto of a Lebanese pastor who lived through the heat of the civil war in his country: Our loyalty is to Christ, Our submission is to the laws of the land, and Our love is to all. While we can see and sense the evil powers spreading a dark cloud over the country, closing the door for the light of hope, we still trust our all-sovereign God “who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.” We “see, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon His Church and his glory appears over it”.
We deeply appreciate the prayers of God’s people everywhere; it is a rare time where the Church in Syria is feeling the true oneness of the body of Christ all over the globe. For this, we thank the Lord, for it is a great encouragement to us.