For the past year the Syrian government has been trying to suppress a popular uprising inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The current Syrian government is headed by president Bashar al-Assad. The Assad family comes from an ethnic and religious minority, the Alawites, who has controlled the secular socialist Baáth party, the only political party allowed to exist in the country, since 1970.
Although the situation had been relatively peaceful during the past 10 years under Bashar Assad, for the past 40 years the Assad regime has suppressed radical Sunni Islam, ruthlessly killing thousands, if not tens of thousands, even before the start of the revolution of 2011. Despite being strongly monitored by at least a handful of competing, well-funded and well-trained secret services, some religious minorities were protected under the Assad regime. For decades Syria was a safe haven for Christians, even though evangelism was not allowed and very few international ministries were able to operate. Syria has also long been the most important regional ally of Russia and Iran.
Mirroring the situations in Tunisia and Egypt, the revolution in Syria which began with young, educated people longing for more freedom, has now been taken over by the Sunni radicals who dominate the armed resistance. There is very little doubt that these so-called “freedom fighters” are backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Sunni radicals’ take-over of the revolution brings with it disturbing news for Syria’s Christian minority. “We do not have any future here; we are just staying to protect the flock as long as possible…,” a pastor said. Graffiti on walls in Damascus read, “Let’s kill all the Alawites and send the Christians to Beirut.” Lebanon is perceived as the only Christian country in the region.
A report given to Open Doors last year which was based on interviews with pastors and priests expressed major concerns that the messages of the mullahs during the Friday services had become much more radical. The mullahs are challenging the (Sunni) Muslims to clean Syria of all infidels and to make it a 100% Islamic state. For the first time since the creation of Syria, being a Muslim is more important than being a Syrian citizen.
Syria is an ethnically and religiously divided country. With around 75% of the population, Sunni Arabs make up the large majority. Minorities are the Alawites (up to 12%), the Christians (up to 8%), the Kurds, the Druzes and some smaller groups. Accurate statistics are not available, but it is believed that there are about 9 million Christians in Syria, excluding the 100,000 Christian refugees from Iraq. Most of the Christians in Syria belong to a traditional church (Catholic or Orthodox), with a tiny minority (less than 25,000 believers) belonging to a few Protestant denominations. Spiritually Syria was one of the most closed countries in the Middle East until only two or three years ago when Protestant churches became more involved in outreach and the traditional churches experienced a revival. Significant numbers of conversions were reported from within various minorities.
Over the past few years, the ministry of Open Doors has expanded rapidly in Syria, with a combined emphasis on Bible distribution and discipleship training. Syria’s demand for discipleship training among traditional believers is unparalleled. Despite extreme persecution in Iran and despite extreme violence, uncertainty and fear in Syria, these two countries stand out when it comes to interest in the Christian faith, desire to read the Bible and personal involvement in spiritual growth.
Currently there are a growing number of internally displaced Syrians fleeing from areas of violence, among them about 7,000 Christian families. With the situation changing daily, Open Doors is currently focusing on increasing aid and Bible distribution to Christians remaining in Syria, and on trauma counseling, food and medicine to those fleeing to other countries.
Father, when we consider the fear and uncertainty in Syria, we are thankful that You are unchangeable and that Your purposes are certain. You are there with the believers in this time of trouble, as you always have been. Reach down and cover them with Your hand of protection. In this time of uncertainty, strengthen their faith and continue to pour out revival in their midst. And as others comprehend the chaos around them, may believers have opportunities to share the hope of the gospel. As Open Doors reaches out with encouragement and resources, multiply its effect as You fed more than 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. In the name of Jesus who is and was and will be, Amen.