Pope Francis is definitely getting the hang of social media. Since announcing on the 1st of September that last Saturday was to be a global day of prayer and fasting for peace in Syria he’s been on Twitter and Facebook getting the message out and its done the job.
This has been a galvanising call across the nations. In Rome alone an estimated 100,000 people gathered to pray for Syria. Undoubtedly there have been millions of others praying over the weekend for peace including hundreds of Syrian Christians in Damascus.
Since Saturday we’ve seen movement internationally. President Obama has held off a vote for military action following Russia’s call for the Syrian regime to hand over its chemical weapons. Who knows at this stage whether the regime’s agreement to comply is genuine or whether this is a stalling tactic, but once again countries are seeking a new resolution at the UN and it feels as if progress is possibly on its way following the deadlock at the G20 summit last week. The talk of military strikes has for now at least been deflected.
Some have linked Saturday’s vigil with these events. There is no way of knowing for sure and this is what makes prayer so hard to quantify and looking at the attack on the ancient Christian village of Maaloula there has still been plenty of bad news coming out of Syria this week. But certainly from my own experience and that of many, many other people I’ve met, praying to God can change situations. It does work and can be incredibly powerful and dramatic. Over the years as I’ve spent time in prayer, I’ve increasingly learnt its value and importance.
The Pope’s call for what is effectively a revolution of prayer and peace instead of one fuelled by hatred and oppression has reminded me of the events back in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. This was a revolution very different to that which we are observing in Syria. Around 100,000 people have now lost their lives in Syria, but in contrast the fall of the East German regime was incredibly peaceful. I remember watching the news as a teenager and being amazed by the way events unfolded. It was only afterwards that I discovered that the whole episode had prayer right at its centre.
The roots of the East German revolution can be traced to St. Nikolai Church in Leipzig in the early 1980s when the pastor, the Rev. Christian Fuhrer started a weekly prayer meeting interceding for peace. It’s easiest and best to let him tell the story in his own words. This is the transcript of an interview he gave to Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in 2009:
“In East Germany, the church provided the only free space in connection with the groups—people who wanted to discuss topics that were taboo, such as the refusal to serve in the army, military education. Everything that could not be discussed in public could be discussed in church, and in this way the church represented a unique spiritual and physical space in East Germany in which people were free.
“Here [at St. Nikolai Church in Leipzig] we have said peace prayers since 1981 and every Monday since 1982. That was something very special in East Germany. Here a critical mass grew under the roof of the church—young people, Christians and non-Christians, and later those who wanted to leave [East Germany] joined us and sought refuge here. The church became a very special place, and in particular the Nikolai Church, which we could describe like this: the church was finally on the side of the Lord, on Jesus’ side. In other words, it was on the side of the oppressed and not on that of the oppressors, with the people and not with those who had the power. The special experience we had here was that the people accepted Jesus’ message, especially the message of the Sermon on the Mount. We experienced in a very special way that everything that is written here is true. If you don’t believe, you won’t stay. The “comrades” did not believe, and they did not stay. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit.” “He pulls the powerful from their throne and lifts up the poor.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” We experienced it just like that—the church as a refuge and a place for change, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, no mention of paradise and redemption, but the daily bread in the reality of political hopelessness.
“The most important thing for us was the power of prayer, which is still true today. We are not praying to the air or to the wall, but to a living God. We did not pray for the wall to come down. It was more comprehensive: [We were praying] for peace, justice, and the preservation of our creation. We addressed the very specific needs of human beings in our prayers, and God has blessed those prayers in such a way that nobody could have predicted. We went on, step by step. It got bigger and bigger, and in the end the prayers prevented us from drowning in fear and gave us the strength to face the opposition outside. In other words, more and more protests came from the church and spilled onto the street, combined with the strength that we got from our faith. The fear was very powerful, but our faith was more powerful than the fear, and the prayers gave us the strength to act. That is still the same today.
“What motivated me was Jesus’ saying “You are the salt of the earth,” which means that you must get involved; you cannot stay in your church. You must get involved in this situation; the salt must be inserted in the wound, in the place that is not in order, that is sick. That’s where you must go. This thought to get involved in politics is a thought that Jesus already voiced in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Someone is beaten and lies there, those who beat him are gone, and now two people coming from temple are approaching, are looking the other way and walking away. Jesus says that they are guilty, not because—they did not do anything, they did not beat him, but they did not help him. If we just leave the world alone and do not get involved, we are just as guilty as those two, as Jesus said in that parable, who looked the other way and did not want to hear about it. You must get involved, because you are the salt of the earth.
“The police were always very violent, especially on October 7th when they beat hundreds of people. With this violence they wanted to prevent people from gathering here, here in the church and on the plaza. They gradually increased the amount of violence, but achieved the opposite of what they expected. Especially on October 9th, they had created such a frightful scenario that they thought people would not dare show up here. Instead, even more people came. In church people had learned to turn fear into courage, to overcome the fear and to hope, to have strength, as I mentioned before. That was very important, and during those years and in particular during this frightful time, people overcame their fear. They did not bring their children, because you had to fear for your life. The children stayed at home. They came to church and then started walking, and since they did not do anything violent, the police were not allowed to take action. “We were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer,” they said. If the first group had attacked the police, the police would have known exactly what to do. You can see it on TV every night how police and armies react to demonstrators. That did not happen, and the officers and generals called Berlin and asked what they should do, but they did not get any instructions. Those in Berlin did not say anything, the officers here did not do anything, and thus the movement that did not result in any violence, as the people learned in church, began to spread, and that is when the following became clear in East Germany: This is the beginning of the end of East Germany. It cannot go on, the people got what they wanted. Peace prayers were held all over the country. When they saw the images from Leipzig on October 9th, they started demonstrations everywhere else. The crowds became larger and larger, and then [Erich] Honecker handed in his resignation, and on the 18th the politburo resigned. On November 9th, on this very important day, on this day the wall was overcome from the East. Those are experiences that you cannot learn in college, and I would like to summarize them as follows: the Nikolai Church was open to everyone. The church was open to all people, no matter if they were Christian or non-Christian. The next thing is that throne and altar do not belong together. That is a huge mistake that the church made during the past century. No, the street and the altar belong together, just as Jesus did not hide in the temple, but was mingling out in the street, in the houses and on the plazas. We as a church must go into the street and let the street come into the church. The church must be open to everyone. We can teach nonviolence as a practical application of the Sermon on the Mount, turn swords into ploughshares as in the Old Testament, open to all, as mentioned before, and we are the people. We have to learn to have a certain self-confidence, overcome fear, find our voice once again in church, approach bad situations with this self-confidence, be able to make changes within society, reject injustice, and refuse to go along, and I think what is important in all of that is the power of prayer. Without prayer we would not have changed anything, we would not have been able to overcome fear, we would not have had the strength to change things and to take the message of the Bible seriously, being able to interject yourself into a social reality, finding the message of Jesus and the Bible and applying it to the current situation, not uttering long sentences but finding the right word for the right situation, knowing how to act. For me the main criterion for action was: What would Jesus say in this situation? Then I came to the conclusion that we needed to do it the same way he would have done it.”
Syria is a mess and intervention is needed, but prayer is a far better weapon than guns or missiles. As Rev. Fuhrer’s story demonstrates, when we call on God, amazing things can happen. We need to keep praying for Syria that they will.