‘It was a horrifying scene’: On the ground with Christians in northern Syria

October 14, 2019 by Ryan Hamm in Middle East

Last Tuesday, the heart of Qamishli, a city in northern Syria, was beating with life. Kids were in school, men and women were at work, shops were open, taxis were driving.


Then the bombs started falling.


Explosions ended the peace in the town on Wednesday afternoon, October 9. Turkey had begun an offensive military action against Kurds in northern Syria. People rushed back to their houses, kids were dismissed from their classrooms and the streets emptied. Life stopped.

George Moushi, the pastor of the Alliance Church in Qamishli, saw the need of the people in this situation. He went out to estimate the damage, to see what he could do for his people. Unfortunately, missiles don’t differentiate between a child or a grown up, between a terrorist or a mother.

Pastor George described the damage he saw on the ground. “Thankfully the bombs didn’t hit the center of the city where the majority of people are,” he says, “but, despite that, there were deaths and people injured.

“Today I visited a Christian family whose house was hit by two missiles. Fadi Habsouna, the father of two children, was injured and lost his house and his shop. His wife was also severely injured in her spine and she is in a critical state. Doctors said she needs surgery and she might be paralyzed forever.”

Pastor George knows this man personally and that the man has no money to afford this surgery and medications, so the pastor helped him out with some money.

Learn more about the situation in Syria

Christians in Syria are facing uncertainty and danger in Syria. Find out how they are doing and what their urgent needs might be in this initial article exploring the current conflict on the Syrian-Turkish border.

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“We gave him money for basic medications, but the operations are expensive,” Pastor George says. “I asked the hospital to inform me about the costs and I hope I can get support for that. His wife might need to be transferred to Damascus to be treated, due to the humble equipment here in Qamishli.”

Pastor George heard that the house of the grandfather of someone in his church was hit by a missile but, thankfully, the family wasn’t there, so nobody was hurt. The house was destroyed, so Pastor George took action to open up a house that belongs to the church where the man can live temporarily—but they need a permanent solution.

He also saw a man who was beheaded in the street when shrapnel hit his neck. “It was horrifying scene,” he recalls.

“Friday night the bakery was hit,” he says. “It is the main source of our bread. People are really concerned about the prisons where ISIS members are held—one in Al Hasakah and one in Qamishli—getting hit and that prisoners might escape.”

The people of Qamishli are right to be concerned. On Sunday, a car bomb exploded in the city, and ISIS claimed responsibility, saying they were targeting Kurdish militants. You can see the results in the photo at the top of this article. It is yet another reminder of the danger the terrorist group still holds for people in Syria—and particularly for Christians, as ISIS specifically targeted Christians and Christian communities in Syria.

“The [authorities] here caught someone in our area, who they suspect to be part of ISIS,” the pastor says. “They are investigating him. People are afraid of terrorist attacks that these people might plan after being freed, especially against Christians.”

In another town, Kobanî, Open Doors field workers have been in contact with people on the ground who have reported strong shelling and violence over the past few days. “They told me that the shelling and the armed clashes were strong and there were clashes along the border,” says the field worker. “One of them said that he and his family had been displaced away from Kobanî [to a place] about 35 km [21 miles] away.”

Pastor George visits a bombed out house in Syria

Pastor George visits a bombed out house in Qamishli

They are just a few of a new wave of people fleeing northern Syria. The United Nations estimates there are around 100,000 people already leaving their homes due to the violence. “Christians are leaving in big numbers either from Qamishli or from Al Malikiyah,” Pastor George says. “They are going to Al Hasakah, even though it is also not safe right now; [it is] still better than Qamishli. Other people who have the means to reach further than Al Hasakah are going to Homs. Each day there are more than 10 buses taking people from all religions or denominations towards other cities like Homs and even Damascus.

“We as a church had a meeting on Saturday to decide if we should stay or leave. About eight families have decided to leave, to go to Homs. It is a group of about 40 people. We as a church decided to support—by all means possible—whoever decides to stay.

“These 40 people decided to leave their homes, to abandon their dreams to live and grow in the city where they were born. The bus was supposed to take them Sunday morning, but things didn’t work out as planned. The trip was canceled, as the bus that was supposed to take them broke down and couldn’t be fixed.

“May God guide us to do the right thing in this difficult situation. May He protect us from the evil and the work of evil.”

Open Doors estimates there are 40,000 to 50,000 Christians who are living in the areas where there is escalating conflict in northern Syria. Christians in northern Syria are caught up in the current conflict, and are also particularly vulnerable to the chaos of war. So far there have not been any signs that they have been intentionally targeted for violence. But Christians worry they are more at risk—partly because they are a religious minority in a society dominated by Islam, and partly because the conflict runs the risk of freeing ISIS leaders.

Through church partners and churches, Open Doors is on the ground, assessing and responding to immediate needs and caring for those affected by the fighting. So far, Open Doors has been able to continue working in the country to do things through these local church partners like helping with emergency support, pastoral and trauma support as well as other needs communicated by the local Christian communities.

Please continue to join us in prayer for peace between Syria and Turkey, for a spirit of peacemaking between all countries involved, for safety for the Christian community in north Syria and for a powerful spirit of courage and hope for the Christians of Syria. Pray they would be God’s light and hope in the midst of the darkness and chaos of war and the unknown.

Top photo: People gather after a car bomb exploded in the town of Qamishli, Syria, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.  (AP Photo/Baderkhan Ahmad)

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