It’s an anniversary where there is seemingly nothing to celebrate. This week, the Syrian conflict stretches into its sixth year leaving behind death, displacement and desolation. Yet, the church’s witness shines in the midst of the darkness.
What started in March 2011 as peaceful demonstrations calling for reforms, quickly turned into a fierce conflict between armed groups and the Syrian government forces. The majority of these groups were militant jihadists linked with Al-Qaeda and were joined by thousands of foreign fighters from about 80 different countries. The war that ensued has been less of a civil war and more of a proxy war as various countries supported different factions in the fighting to advance their own geopolitical interests in the region.
The numbers vary, but estimates are that between 250,000-350,000 have died in the violence and 11 million or more have been forced from their homes, about half the pre-war population. The resulting refugee crisis is one of the largest in modern history. The surrounding countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey have struggled to cope with influx of refugees, as well as many countries in Europe and beyond.
“In spite of the existential threat posed to indigenous Christians by the militant groups, new life was breathed into many churches in Syria as they responded to the crises in their own country,” said Amgad Beblawi, World Mission’s coordinator for the Middle East. “Although hundreds of church properties have been destroyed throughout Syria and hundreds of thousands of Christians have been expelled by the militant groups, new life was breathed into the churches in Syria as they provided relief and hospitality to their neighbors. Countless local churches across Syria provided shelter for victims of ISIL and other militant groups, and implemented relief programs that have proven to be much more efficient and compassionate than secular international relief organizations. Denominational offices of Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic churches became coordinating centers to support the relief work of local churches.”
Several PMA agencies are actively at work supporting the relief work and witness of the churches in Syria, including World Mission and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.
The Revs. Scott and Elmarie Parker are based in Lebanon to work alongside PC(USA) partners and engage U.S. congregations in developing partnerships with the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL.) They also assist U.S. congregations in developing useful educational resources regarding the church and the situation in Syria-Lebanon and guide U.S. congregations in their efforts to assist refugee and internally displaced families. The Parkers also lead trips for PC(USA) pastors, elders and church members who come to Lebanon and Syria to provide solidarity and to learn.
Despite no electricity, lack of food and clean drinking water and little access to healthcare, Elmarie Parker sees small signs of hope. “Though tangible answers may be elusive, hope lives through the actions of Arab Presbyterians of NESSL who have chosen to stay and serve in Syria. Through reliant faith in Christ, these faithful stay—trusting our Lord for their future and actively serving their communities with the tangible love of God in the present,” she said. “Fifteen of the original 18 Presbyterian congregations of NESSL continue to gather for worship and ministry in very, very difficult contexts.”
Mary Mikhael, a ruling elder of NESSL, thinks about the children. “Our greatest sign of hope is found in the faces of over 100 children from the refugee camps who are now enjoying a normal schooling after being denied this basic right over the last five years. We look forward to seeing hundreds more of their faces in the future.”
Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has received financial support from U.S. churches to aid Syrians in their struggle and is working closely with its partners to provide help.
“PDA is grateful for the gifts to support ongoing humanitarian and spiritual response. Since the conflict exploded, PDA has received nearly half a million dollars designed to support relief and recovery projects,” said the Rev. Laurie Kraus, PDA coordinator. “The supported projects include direct relief and support for refugees – especially children and families – in camps in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon as well as Jordan. In addition, winter relief projects including fuel, food, shelter and medication have assisted internally displaced people and those who are unable to maintain an income to support their basic needs.”
Kraus says the contributions have helped those who have stayed behind, including construction of new apartments and the rebuilding of at least 40 houses in Homs, Syria, so that families can return to pluralistic neighborhoods after extensive damage from the armed conflict. Donations have helped equip a Syrian leader to serve as the disaster coordinator to support resiliency and trauma training for pastoral leaders in the region as well as provide support for church partners in Europe who are engaging with transiting and resettling of migrants there.
“In the midst of unspeakable horror over the past five years, the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, our partners in the region, have demonstrated amazing courage and faithfulness,” said Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace and Justice ministries. “This group has provided refuge and relief to the countless number of people displaced because of the conflict, started a school to educate children in refugee camps and has continued to share the light and hope of the gospel in the midst of the dreariness and despair of war."
“Today, and after five years of the conflict, it is proven that the presence and existence of the Christian community in Syria is the most endangered, in comparison with all other ethnic and religious communities. They are leaving the country in big numbers,” said Rev. Joseph Kassab, general secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon. “Nevertheless, the Christian church is discovering itself in a new and different way. How to be the church in times of persecution? How to be the church for reconciliation? How to be the church for others? Those three questions fill our daily life and the future to come.”
As the war continues the Syrian people and their neighbors continue to suffer, to seek safe havens, and to find safe and sustainable ways to remain in their country and work for a return to a peaceful society.
To financially support Scott and Elmarie Parker’s work, click on presbyterianmission.org/donate/E200504.
To support Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in their relief work click on presbyterianmission.org/donate/make-a-gift/gift-info/DR000148/.
The PC(USA) Office of Immigration Issues has created a resource page around the “We Choose Welcome” campaign with theological and advocacy information for those wishing to study the issue and participate in action on behalf of Syrian refugees.