In a recent Chapel service at CGST, we were overrun by 15 minutes because of the numerous announcements. Before the end of the gathering, a representative from the student union led the staff and student community to pray together for the Syrian war and the refugees. During the moment of silence, I recalled an article just received a few days ago written by my friend, a Christian brother-in-Christ from the Middle East.
This article was posted on the website of “Lausanne Movement”1. Based on the concern of personal safety, the author did not disclose his name. I remembered when I met him 13 years ago; we talked about the history of the faith community he belonged to, which could be traced back to the church at Antioch in Acts chapter 11. As pointed out in his article, “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.”
Christians form 10% of the Syrian population — they were well-educated, and held good positions in business, education, and government. Suddenly everything has been turned upside down in the past four to five years. A city in the middle of Syria was repeatedly bombarded. The Christian community was no exception. The Presbyterian Church over there was the largest church in Syria, but 80-90% of Christians have been displaced. Although no one has exact numbers, some 400,000 to 500,000 Christians have become refugees. Ever since 2011, there were some 45 terrorist groups in Syria. They wanted to separate and took over the country by force. Even after the ceasefire, it is not optimistic that Christians can rebuild their homes. The Islamic State (IS) is committed to control and destroy all the Christian communities step by step in their territories.
In the midst of trials and suffering, God still has His wonderful purpose. Christians in the Middle East no longer work for their own interest. Coptic churches in Egypt are praying for the believers in Iraq for the first time; five church networks in Syria engage in various domestic humanitarian aid. Lebanon hosts 1.5 million refugees, among them 400,000 are refugee children. Local churches seek to provide medical care, food, education and other resources for them. Over the years, caring for people of other faiths was not a priority of the church. However, in view of the crisis today, evangelism and social action should go hand in hand, which is an indisputable consensus among the leaders and believers.
War has forced the church to face the needs of Muslims: these refugees are at their doorstep waiting for help. Undoubtedly, many Muslims support the aspirations of the IS. They are disappointed with the present state of the government and many people yearn to restore the glorious history in the past. Such a mentality is easy to fall into extreme terrorism. On the other hand, some Muslims who have moderate views doubt whether this is the authentic Islam they believe in. Quite a number of them come to Christ when the gospel is presented to them. Lebanese and Syrian pastors said that in the last two to three years, they have seen more Muslims come to faith in Christ than in their whole lives.
Some Lebanese churches have a separate Sunday worship service for the Muslim Background Believers (MBB) among the Syrian refugees. In one church, 80% of the refugee congregations are converts who have now been baptized. Some came from northern Syria where IS is in control and Christians would never have dared to go. Now they came to Lebanon and Jordan to hear the gospel. The author mentioned about a very strict Muslim whom he knew personally and has now become a committed Christian.
Church should be prepared to continue to witness Christ in the reality of persecution, but not be discouraged or dismayed. The church can still trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness in the midst of very difficult 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.