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The churches in Syria, as they are in Iraq, are facing four main challenges amid the current regional crisis:
1. Psychological shock
For many years these churches were at peace, enjoying relative privileges. Christians were flourishing as a community in Syria and Iraq—they were well-educated, and held good positions in business, education, and government. Suddenly everything has been turned upside down in just a few years. When meeting Syrian and Iraqi refugees, one can see that the shock is still there, even after four or five years; they cannot comprehend what is happening.
In the city of Homs, in the middle of Syria, which was repeatedly bombarded, the worst hit area was the Christian district. The Presbyterian Church in Homs, for example, was one of the strongest in Syria, but 80-90% of the Christians in Homs have been displaced. A few are now returning, but most homes and many churches have been destroyed.
Although no one has exact numbers, some 400,000-500,000 Christians have migrated from Syria in the past four years, many of them forced to do so. Not many will be returning. Christians formed 9-10% of the Syrian population before the war.
Christians are facing the atrocities not only of the Islamic State (IS) but also some 45 different terrorist groups in Syria, including some like Al-Nusra Front that are linked with Al-Qaida. Ever since 2011 in Syria, it was clear that there were terrorist groups seeking to take over and create an Islamic state. The actions of these groups also affect Muslims and the infrastructure of society more broadly, as well as Christians, but Christians are affected more. IS is doing this intentionally to control Christian areas, and in the future to eliminate the Christian areas entirely.
As a result, quite a number of Christian adults and children among Syrian refugees have gone through traumas which need addressing.
Churches and theological programmes inside Syria, and also in Lebanon, were initially taken by surprise. They were focused more on evangelism. They were not prepared to deal with persecution or oppression and did not know how to respond.
The church is catching up rapidly. At least five church networks in Syria are very involved with humanitarian aid to both Christians and non-Christians in their areas. This kind of social action is becoming a priority. Caring for people of other faiths was not a priority before, but now evangelism and social action are going hand in hand. Most churches are now reaching out and helping the displaced, the poor, and those impacted by war with aid and education services.
They are also starting to think more seriously, developing a theology of persecution—how to stand in persecution and a stance on resistance. Arab Christians were pacifist, especially in Syria and Iraq, never carrying arms even to defend themselves and their property. Some say they should have defended themselves. Reconciliation and forgiveness are now huge issues for the whole region.
As these issues surface, the church is responding. A Forum for Evangelical Thought in the Arab World, run by Langham Scholars Ministry in partnership with the Middle East Association for Theological Education (MEATE), has brought together theologians and pastors from Palestine/Israel, Jordan, Sudan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria twice in the last two years.
Openness to the gospel
As churches in Syria and Iraq start to be engaged with the non-Christian community in deeds of love and compassion, stories are emerging every week of conversions inside Syria and Iraq.
War has forced the church to engage with Muslims on their doorstep needing care. The church has had a wake-up call to engage with the Muslim community. Furthermore, churches in Syria have started to experience a unity that never existed before, even beyond the evangelical churches. This is giving them strength in numbers, in vision, and in encouraging one another to reach out.
Furthermore, IS atrocities inevitably have a deep impact on Muslims.
Many Muslims are supporting the aspirations of IS, whether they say it in public or in private. They are disillusioned with secular governments and feel it is time to restore the glories of the past. This thinking encourages extremism and terrorism. It affects mainly poorly educated Sunni Muslims, both young and old.
On the other hand, many moderate Muslims are saying that this is not the Islam they believe in. Quite a number of them come to Christ when the gospel is presented to them.
Ministry among refugees
The refugee crisis is huge in Lebanon. There are an estimated 1.4 to 1.8 million refugees—more than in Jordan or Turkey. They are not confined to camps as is mostly the case in Turkey or Jordan, but they are everywhere. They bring economic and social problems to an already fragile country. Among the refugees there are many who are supportive of IS and other radical groups. Every week people are arrested by the Lebanese Army Intelligence for smuggling arms or money or giving other support.
Many churches in Lebanon are very much engaged with the refugees, offering humanitarian aid (medicine, food, organizing schools for children of refugees). There are 400,000 Syrian refugee children, but the Lebanese school system can take care of only 150,000 of them. The Baptist church in one city has a school for 300, while the Presbyterian Church in West Beqaa Valley is opening a school this year.
The church is taking the opportunity to reach out with the message of the gospel and Muslims are coming to faith. In the last two to three years, Lebanese and Syrian pastors say they have seen more Muslims come to faith in Christ than in their whole lives, mainly among Syrian and Iraqi refugees.
In general, they are coming to existing churches, but in some cases there are Muslim Background Believer (MBB) churches in the area. For example, some Lebanese churches have a separate service for the Syrian refugees. In one church, 80% of the refugee congregation are converts who have now been baptized.
Christian NGOs are involved, coming alongside the churches. The church in Egypt is also involved, while some Americans and Europeans (from Finland and Netherlands) have also come to help in Lebanon. So it is not only the work of churches from the Middle East, but contributions have come from the church worldwide.
God at work
In the midst of suffering and darkness, God is working in his sovereignty. There is a new spirit of Christian unity inside Syria and Iraq. Egyptian Copts are praying for Assyrian Iraqi Christians in the region (which they hardly ever did before). The churches are thinking about how not just to survive, but to thrive, and to make a contribution in the region.
Among the Muslims who are coming to faith in Christ are many from areas like northern Syria, where Christians would never have dared to go, such as Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa where IS is now in control. God is bringing them as refugees to Lebanon and Jordan to hear the gospel. For example, a very strict Muslim from Deir ez-Zor known to the author is now a committed Christian.
Outlook for the church
The Arab Christian Church has survived from the Day of Pentecost to now, nearly 2,000 years. It has had some good times as well as bad. It has survived pressure and persecution.
The question is not one of survival but of impact. Even with small, and diminishing, numbers, Christians have had a huge impact on society, education, the political systems, and the economies of the region.
The church has a brighter future. It will continue its witness with help from Christians from other lands, but it can do much more than in the past. Technology and communications tools give the churches new means. A new strong sense of identity and desire to work together will also help. Before the crisis, even evangelical pastors were reluctant to meet to pray together every few months. All that has changed.
Migration is a big issue, but the church has always been a minority. It was only a majority before the arrival of Islam, but in those times it was inactive. Numbers do not matter if there is the will to work together. The regional brain drain is a concern, especially among Christians. Church leaders are looking for ways to encourage young people to stay in Syria.
Christians outside the region should become more aware of what is going on, arming themselves with good information—not just about the bad news, but about the good things God is doing. Prayer is crucial.
Christians in the region feel a sense of isolation and it is important to know that somewhere Christians, churches, and organizations are praying for them and thinking of them. Some thought the so-called Christian West would come to help, and were disappointed. Many feel that President Putin has said more encouraging words about Christians in the region than President Obama.
Financial aid in this time of crisis would be very welcome, whether, for example, to support the churches in their social work, or to help Christians who have lost their homes.
Here are some resources to help readers in their response:
- Heart for Lebanon
- The Institute of Middle East Studies
- Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding
- ‘Helping Syrian families get through a stormy and uncertain winter’
Wider lessons for the global church
Three lessons can be learned for churches everywhere:
- The church needs to be prepared to face the reality of a hostile environment. The church was not well prepared for resistance, facing persecution, or reconciliation. The church needs to be doing ‘double listening’ (as John Stott called it)—listening to what God is saying through his Word, and what society is saying—and then to interact with its context.
- In places where the church is a minority (whether in a secular or a religious society), it should not lose heart and hope. It was a minority at the start of its history. It can always have a right impact, whether through evangelism or through building up society.
- The church must trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness in the midst of very hard circumstances, even if we cannot understand what is going on. A Syrian MBB, who was in prison for ten days in solitary confinement, said afterwards that he was expecting a miracle from God to open the doors, but instead he had a clear vision of the presence of God in the cell. An almost audible voice said to him: ‘False witnesses and close friends brought you here; they did the same to me on the cross.’ He said God’s presence was enough for him.
Habakkuk was a Middle Eastern believer. He asks the questions: ‘How long?’ and ‘Why?’ (Hab 1:2-4). The three friends of Daniel said: ‘Even if God does not deliver us, we will not bow down, and we will trust’ (Dan 3:15-18).
Many Christians in the Middle East are asking the questions that Habakkuk was asking, but at the same time they are trusting in God’s goodness and sovereignty in the midst of pain and destruction. Some are experiencing God’s protection, and others are willing to live for him, serve him, and obey him ‘even if’ they are not protected. There are many lessons that we can learn if we stand with solidarity with the church in the Middle East.