Presbyterians across the U.S. will have an opportunity this fall to meet with Christian leaders facing difficult challenges across the world. As many as 10 leaders from partner denominations and organizations will spend several weeks traveling across the country sharing their experiences, both good and bad.
Among those speaking this year is the Rev. Rami Al Magdasi, a pastor with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Syria and Lebanon. His work in Iraq included serving as director of Syrian Refugees Ministry with Samaritans Purse, overseeing the distribution of food and clothing to refugees in Erbil. For 10 years, Rami worked with Operation Blessing, the Alliance Church in Syria and Iraq and Crisis Response International to provide translation services for refugees and people displaced by war and unrest in the region. In March of 2014, Rami began serving at Wayside Presbyterian Church in Hamburg, N.Y., as a Christian education associate.
The past several years have been very difficult for Christian leaders in the Middle East as ISIS-led violence continued to escalate against Christians in the region. Rami said the church did not anticipate the large numbers of people who fled because of ISIS.
“The churches opened their doors, halls and gardens to many families and supplied blankets and mattresses for them. The biggest problems were not enough oil and gas for cooking and heat. In Syria, people cut down trees to use for cooking and heat,” he said. “In Iraq, the churches bought hundreds of electric heaters to help people with their needs. In addition, churches also provided blankets, mattresses and food. The government eventually provided the people with oil this past winter, but this caused a shortage for the people who were already living there.”
Rami said the families grieve for their homes and loved ones, adding that most would leave the country if they had a chance to build a new life with no war and violence.
“The church is worried. Christians are leaving, but they are trying to do the best to help everyone, Christians and non-Christians,” he said. “The church needs support so they can pay their pastors and employees, buy supplies, pay for utilities and meet the needs and burdens that the congregation faces in the midst of the violence and turmoil.”
Iraqi officials report Christians are either moving to the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq or leaving the country for Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. Many have applied for asylum or refugee status with the United Nations in hopes of going to Europe, Australia or the U.S. Rami said there were more than two and a half million Christians in Iraq in the 1970s. Today, that number is hovering around 200,000, with an estimated six to seven families leaving each day.
“We have to cope with the decrease of membership due to immigration,” added Rami. “We need to intensify our pastoral ministry in a special way to attract people to find meaning in our churches.”
Rami is hopeful U.S. congregations will get a clearer understanding of the problems facing Iraqi Christians during his visits this fall.
“They need their sisters and brothers in the United States to help support them in so many ways—spiritually, financially and politically,” he said. “Politically, our congregations must come together as one and push the U.S. government to ensure safety to the churches and our people in Iraq.”
Since 1984, more than 220 International peacemakers from more than 57 countries have been hosted by Presbyterians. This year’s group will be in the U.S. Sept. 25 – Oct. 18.
More information about this year’s peacemakers is available online.