As Syria disintegrates in war, Christians give refugees hope
NOTE TO READERS: The deepening crisis created by the civil war in Syria poses a major threat not only to the continued existence of that nation but to the stability of an already chaotic Middle East. This story and the following other stories cover the growing Christian ministry to thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing into neighboring countries.
NORTHERN JORDAN (BP) -- They shot him nine times in the legs and torso.Faraj* shows the ugly scars to prove it. A bullet in his knee can't be removed. His crime? He was a teacher in Syria; he spoke out publicly against the regime of Bashar al-Assad when anti-government protests began last year. Thousands have died for less -- on both sides -- in a civil war now reducing large parts of Syria to dust.
Faraj survived his wounds and escaped with his wife and five children to Jordan, where more than 250,000 Syrian refugees crowd towns and dirt-caked tents in desert camps along the border. The family occupies a few dingy rooms in one such town. Wet cardboard hangs from the leaky kitchen ceiling, where the night chill of oncoming winter seeps in. Faraj wants to work, but there are few jobs for Syrians in Jordan's already hard-pressed economy. No education, either -- many Syrian children have been out of school for nearly two years because of the war.
Faraj's 10-year-old daughter Aisha* sits beside him, bright-eyed and eager. She dreams of studying English, but remains at home while her father teaches her as best he can.
"Every day my daughter is crying to go to school, and no one listens to her," Faraj says. "Every day I go to the school near here, but they tell me to go away and they will call."
No call comes. The schools are full -- reflecting how Jordan is straining under the load of refugees fleeing regional conflicts from Iraq to Libya.
But Faraj has new hope. A Sunni Muslim, he was welcomed to the area by Jordanian Christians at a local church. They helped his family find shelter and brought them food, a fan and a refrigerator. And they treated him like a human being -- a friend, even. They also gave him a Bible, which he now reads with growing interest because of what it contains: truth.
"It doesn't lie," he says, with an expression of near-amazement. "And Christian people are honest. They don't lie. This is what interests me."
Could he ever forgive those who tried to kill him? "Yes, I might," he answers. "Because I am reading the Injil [New Testament] every day, and I am seeing many things in it about forgiveness, love and peace. These are things I want to have."
Someone who cares
More and more, such epiphanies are occurring among the overwhelmingly Muslim refugees streaming by the hundreds of thousands across Syria's borders into neighboring countries. Several million more have become wanderers in their own country as the war spreads. Terrified, exhausted and angry, they need the most basic necessities. But they also need someone who cares.
Many are mothers with children. Their husbands are fighting back home -- or dead.
"I see precious women who love their children just like I love my children," says Christine Andrews*, a Christian worker in Jordan. "Just think how you would feel if you had to leave your home in the middle of the night because someone was burning it down. You had to run with your children and escape with your life and the clothes on your back. You had to leave everything behind and you don't know what's going to be there when you get back. This is what a lot of these women are looking at. They don't know what their future holds. There's a lot of fear and anger -- and deep sadness. If we can give them Jesus and a relationship with the Lord who holds their future in His hands, that would give them hope."
Munif*, a Jordanian Christian pastor who initiated much of the refugee ministry now flourishing on the border, aims to do just that. As Syrian families began to crowd into his town and the surrounding villages last year looking for basic shelter, he and his congregation refused to look the other way.
They didn't have much to give, but "we couldn't see people in need and not act if we could do anything," he recounts. "This is our message as Christians, not just to stay inside the church, but to go to the people and help them -- and now there's a big chance."
The small-scale ministry began with aid to about 40 Syrian families but has grown into the hundreds as refugees continue to flood the area. Munif and his helpers -- who now include Christian workers and aid groups from Jordan and beyond -- visit families, deliver food and provide other necessities, such as diapers and personal hygiene items. As winter approaches, the need for blankets, carpets, gas heaters and warm clothes grows urgent.
The priority on visiting families where they live, however, serves a greater purpose than just distributing aid supplies. It expresses love.
"We have a lot of volunteers and teams helping these days, especially in the area of visiting people in their houses, sharing life with them, eating with them, drinking tea, listening to them, speaking to them, hugging them," Munif explains. "By this we respect and honor them."
Hospitality means everything in Arab culture, and being visited in their homes, however sparse those homes may be, gives traumatized Syrians "a sense of normalcy," says Josh Andrews*, a Christian worker actively involved in the ministry. "They're happy to make tea."
It also opens unseen doors into hearts and lives.
"We're having the opportunity to share the Gospel clearly, boldly, just about every time we go into a house," reports Jack Logan*, another worker in Jordan. "It's amazing. It takes a while for the veneer to go down ... but when you start to speak about Christ, get into the Word and ask, 'Can I tell you a story?' the answer is almost always an enthusiastic yes."
Josh Andrews adds: "We can't visit every family, but we're taking one day at a time and honoring God in our actions. We're praying this is God's time [for Syrians]. They're open to hear. How do we get God's Word into their heads? That's all we need to do. God does the rest. We're expecting to see people come to Christ, form groups and, when Syrians begin to go back into their country, take this message with them and grow it from the inside."
No end in sight
When, or if, displaced Syrians will be able to return to their homeland is anyone's guess.
An average of 100 civilians die daily in the crossfire between regime forces -- directed by the ruling Alawite minority, distant historical cousins of Shiite Muslims -- and the multiple rebel factions claiming to represent the Sunni Muslim majority. Other ethnic and religious groups, including Syrian Christians, find themselves caught in the middle. More than 35,000 civilians, including thousands of women and children, have died since the violence began in March 2011. As increasing numbers of foreign fighters enter the country on both sides, the struggle for power has taken on an increasingly sectarian, Shiite-versus-Sunni tone. The violence spilling across Syria's borders threatens to destabilize surrounding countries.
And it grows increasingly savage.
Syrian troops shell densely populated neighborhoods to rubble in order to root out small bands of rebels. Rebels respond with suicide bombings, assassinations and urban attacks. The majority of atrocities continue to be perpetrated by regime forces and their militia supporters, according to human rights groups. But abuses and street executions by rebel fighters are increasing as jihadists gain influence among rebel factions. Walk into most any refugee camp and Syrians will show you cell phone videos of casual brutality.
The U.N.-Arab League envoy for Syria issued a dire warning Nov. 6: If the civil war doesn't end soon, Syria could become another Somalia, with militant factions and clan warlords battling for years over bloody pieces of territory.
"This thing is not going to end well," predicts a Christian observer with many years of experience in the Middle East. "There's so much hatred built up in the hearts of so many people. They're caught up in forces beyond their control. They feel they're in the middle of a hurricane."
No wonder so many desperate Syrians are fleeing to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and other countries in the area. The refugee count is expected to top 700,000 by year's end, according to U.N. estimates. In reality, that many refugees may already have sought sanctuary across borders. Stories of traumatic crossings abound:
-- A father and mother crossing the Syria-Jordan border with their five children watched in horror as their teenage son, Hassan*, was shot in the head in an ambush. As he lay bleeding in his mother's arms, she screamed for help. A soldier approached, gun pointed. Their 4-year-old son, Wafik*, who rarely speaks, stood and held up his arms. "I beg you, Uncle, don't hurt us anymore. Have mercy on us," he appealed. The child's eloquent words must have moved the soldier, who took Hassan to a hospital for treatment. The whole family later made it into Jordan, where they found comfort from Munif's church. Hassan recovered, but walks haltingly and needs physical therapy.
-- A young Sunni couple escaped the slaughter of friends and family members and fled their town, moving from village to village. At one point, Syrian Christians sheltered them, hiding them under a church. Finally, they drugged their 8-month-old daughter to keep her quiet during the dangerous border crossing into Jordan. They ended up in the huge Zaatari refugee camp, a windswept expanse of sun-blasted tents holding more than 30,000 Syrians. The harsh conditions there threatened the life of their daughter, who has breathing problems. They slipped out of the camp and found a tiny apartment in Amman, Jordan's capital. But the husband can't find enough work to pay basic expenses. Christian friends in the city have helped them, but they might have to return to the Zaatari camp if he can't find a dependable job. The thought of winter in a flimsy tent -- and what it could do to their daughter -- torments them.
-- A family caught at the Syria-Lebanon border for 13 days managed to hire a taxi for $1,400, plus various bribes, to reach East Beirut, where they share a cramped apartment with another family. The father, a master chef who earned more than $1,000 a month in Syrian restaurants, now makes $10 a day serving coffee -- when he can find the work. Some of the people in the crowded neighborhood are hostile toward Syrians. "We just want to see our kids grow up and have normal lives," he says. For now, everything is day to day.
-- Four families who recently made it to Lebanon shiver in nearly empty rented rooms they share. They fled Syria after attending a funeral that was attacked by Syrian forces, they allege, with cluster bombs. One of the men shows his wounds. One of the young women, well into pregnancy, has yet to see a doctor. How would she pay? They gratefully accept aid boxes from Christians containing food, toiletries and a Bible.
New Testament model
Such stories make Sami*, a 38-year-old Christian pastor in Lebanon, even more determined to follow the risky path he has chosen. The first time he visited a refugee family last year, near the volatile border with Syria, it hit him.
"I felt a heavy burden on my shoulders and I started to cry, not knowing why," he remembers. "The main question that was coming to my mind was: Who's going to reach those people with the Gospel? I looked around and we [Christ-followers] are few; they are thousands, hundreds of thousands. They are all from Muslim background, and there is no one in Lebanon thinking to reach them. As I was crying and asking this question, the answer came to my mind saying, 'You are going to reach them.'"
Like Munif in Jordan, Sami and a small band of Lebanese and American Christian workers have delivered food, aid and the love of Christ to Syrian refugees, who have soared beyond 100,000 in Lebanon. It fits into the vision he already had to reach more than 200 mostly Muslim villages with the Gospel. His model: the first churches of the New Testament.
"The early church had no buildings, no financial abilities as we have today," Sami says. "They had so little but they were able to do so much. In Lebanon, we have more freedom than what they had back in Jerusalem or in the Roman Empire, so why can't we do what they did? I felt the Lord leading us to start something new –- old, but new -- to bring back those principles and put them into practical life. ... I cannot go to the Muslim villages and rent an apartment or a building, put up a cross, bring pews and a piano and say, 'Come to Jesus.' But I can go there, sit with them on the floor around a cup of tea and discuss about salvation, and I will be accepted by them. It's not changing the message but changing the tools. Our vision is to plant churches following the biblical model, reproducible churches that teach people how to have a Gospel-centered life for God's glory."
He's faced plenty of opposition, some of it tinged with threats of violence -- not only from Muslim leaders but from traditional churches that have no interest in reaching out to Muslims, especially Syrian Muslims. Many Lebanese, whether Christian or Muslim, detest Syrians, who long occupied their country and continue to influence events there. Sami himself grew up in Beirut walking past murals reading, "Know your enemy. Syria is your enemy."
It's time for followers of Christ to move beyond that mindset, he believes. "Now Christians are serving Syrians, Muslims, and showing love," he says with a wide smile.
And Syrians are responding. Thousands have heard the Gospel through verbal presentations, audio Bible stories and Bible distribution in conjunction with relief aid. More than 5,000 Bibles have been given to Syrian families. Hundreds have decided to follow Christ as Lord. Worship and discipleship groups are forming, even in some of the most dangerous border areas (see "Miracles on the border: Syrians encounter Jesus").
To fearful Lebanese churches that tell him Syrian Muslims will never believe in Jesus, Sami points to those who already have believed. And the good news is making its way back across the border.
"These people are in need, and they need Jesus whether they were with the [Assad] regime or against the regime," Sami declares. "We cannot say that God cannot work. We believe that the Lord is bringing these people to us so we can share the Gospel with them, equip them, disciple them and prepare them to go back to Syria when the situation is calm so they can start a church-planting movement. It's not by coincidence that thousands of Syrians would come to Lebanon, and it's not by coincidence that after this long history of Syrian occupation, Lebanese Christians are serving Sunni Muslims."
*Names changed. Erich Bridges is a global correspondent for the International Mission Board. Contributions to relief ministry among Syrian refugees can be made by visiting imb.org/syrianrefugees? and designating "Syria relief" in the comment line. For updates on how God is at work through the crisis in Syria and ways to pray and help, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributions to the spread of God's Word among Syrians can be made by calling Faith Comes By Hearing at 1-800-545-6552 and designating a gift for the Syrian Refugees Project. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).