In Syria, God Is Resurrecting the Lazarus Church—Giving It New Life
“…Then Jesus lifted His eyes upward and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.
I knew that You always hear Me, but I say this for the benefit of the people standing here, so they may believe that You sent Me.”
After Jesus had said this, He called out in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’”
Two years ago, the Church in Syria was all but dead, never to come back. The vicious civil war and invasion by ISIS militants threatened the very existence of Christianity. But our partners on the ground in this war-torn country say the story is starting to change. God is resurrecting the Church in Syria, responding to the prayers and cries of His people around the world—and demonstrating His compassion and power to restore in the middle of a deadly war that continues to escalate. This week, major assaults by the Syrian government on rebel-held city eastern Ghouta (a short drive from the center of Damascus and one of the last pockets of Syria under rebel control) have reportedly killed at least 250 people.
Though war continues in the Middle-Eastern country of 20 million people, there are signs of hope, especially in major cities like Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. We are hearing powerful stories of prayers answered as Christ begins to reveal His plan and a new future for His Church in the Middle East.
‘It will be back.’
Printed in stark white on a field of black are the four simple, defiant and hope-filled words. Amid the bombed-out shells of buildings and streets lined with rubble, these noticeable billboards of hope by main roads have risen up from the dust of Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city and an important hub of commerce in the country’s northern part.
Surrounded by ruined buildings, the signs could appear premature. But after rows of near-empty streets, with destruction on both sides, comes a splash of stalls and colorful shops, some newly opened. And while explosions just miles away can be heard all day long, new life after the seven-year civil war is rising up.
Beginnings: A Teenager and a Can of Spray Paint
Naief Abazid stood giggling, a can of black spray paint in his hand, staring at the wall of his all-boys school in southern Syria. Egged on by bigger kids, trying to make them laugh, the young kid from the city of Daraa had no idea that on Feb. 16, 2011, he was about to start a revolution, and eventually a historic global conflict, with his teenage prank.
“It’s your turn, Doctor Bashar al-Assad,” he scrawled out with the paint.
The message had surprising weight—suggesting that Syria’s dictatorship ruled by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad would be the next to fall after the Arab Spring revolutions that had erupted in Tunisia and Egypt. In 2011, the rash of protests inspired thousands of people around the Middle East to rise up against totalitarian regimes.
Assad, who since 2000 has led the country with an iron fist, soon got word of a possible rebellion and set out to crush it before it began. Abazid and many of the school-age boys in Daraa were rounded up; some were tortured. But Abazid’s act and Al-Assad’s vicious response stoked the fires of revolution, first in Daraa, then to other cities and villages across the country—to Homs, to Damascus, to Kobane, to Aleppo. In 2012, rebel forces took control of Aleppo—which became a focal point of the Syrian Civil War. For nearly four years, rebel factions and ISIS fighters controlled the city.
From Revolution to Deadly Global War
In the nearly eight years since the writing on the wall, the complex war is now one of the world’s deadliest global conflicts. Shia fighters from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Pakistan, with air support from Russia, have fought fiercely alongside government forces against Sunni rebels who are backed with financial support from the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey—all international opponents of Assad’s regime.
Meanwhile, the presence of ISIS militants, who declared a caliphate in Syria in 2014, covering large parts of the country, brought torture and death for hundreds of thousands, repeatedly targeting Christian communities. Early 2017, Christians were forced to sign a “dhimmi contract,” giving up their basic rights and religious freedom. Last year, ISIS fighters killed more than 100 civilians in a Christian town. After a furious battle in 2016, government forces recaptured most of Aleppo and in October 2017, ISIS forces were driven from Raqqa, the terrorist group’s former de facto capital.
Fierce fighting left Aleppo cut in two, the eastern part in control of rebels—or terrorists, according to many Syrians—that enacted a harsh regime ruled by Sharia law. After four long years of fighting, the government of President Al-Assad has finally regained control of those areas.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, reports harrowing statistics:
- More than 400,000 people are dead from fighting in the civil war.
- Nearly 5 million are internationally displaced.
- More than 6 million are internally displaced.
- One million are trapped by fighting with nearly 20,000 killed or otherwise died in combatant custody.
- At least 60,000 are dead from torture or harsh conditions.
For help in understanding the complex, multi-front civil war in Syria and its implications, watch the video below:
The World’s Oldest Christian Community Nearly Destroyed
When those who had left the country returned or came out of hiding, they found their city all but destroyed by bombs and rockets. Father Ghassan Ward is still reeling from the 2013 destruction of the Greek Orthodox Church in Aleppo. He is a sobering representation of the widespread and deep loss the war has brought. Stones are piled at the entrance. He steps through the old gate to the church where Greek Orthodox Aleppans have worshipped since 1425.
Large holes in the ceiling, covered with UNHCR plastic, show where the rockets hit, though mercifully the church was empty at the time. The church’s guard gestures with his arms to describe how the rockets flew in the direction of the church and other buildings around it.
Father Ward looks at the damaged building and pauses. “I lost everything in the war,” he says. “My bishop [Boulos Yazigi] was kidnapped in April 2013, my church was ruined by rockets on August 8, 2013, I lost my wife two years ago because of cancer, I lost my house because of the rockets, and I lost my two sons, who had to leave the country; otherwise they would have had to join the army. So you can say I am like many Syrians, who also lost everything.”
The Christian community in Syria is one of the world’s oldest, according to a report from the BBC. It was near the Syrian capital, Damascus, roughly 130 miles from Jerusalem, that Saul encountered God by the side of the road and began new life as a follower of Christ.
As recently as the 1920s, Christians made up an estimated 30 percent of the population in Syria. Now, believers make up only about 10 percent (2 million believers). Christian persecution remains very high, with the main source being Islamic oppression. Syria is 15th on the 2018 World Watch List, with a persecution score of 76 out of 100.
Aleppo Will Walk Again
Though the war is far from over, Aleppo is cautiously back to life and will once again thrive, say the hopeful. But it will no doubt take time. Our partners on the ground recently saw that spirit of hopefulness in the Christian community there—and have witnessed how God is using the Body of Christ to revive the city.
In the worst parts of Aleppo, Open Doors is partnering with local churches to equip and empower believers through a variety of ministries to build up the Body and witness to their communities. Last year, Open Doors announced plans to partner with indigenous churches to help open Centers of Hope across the Middle East that will each equip and empower the Body of Christ to serve 1,000 to 1,500 families through counseling, discipleship training, food distribution, etc.
A church in Aleppo recently purchased the ground floor of a building where they plan to establish a Center of Hope, hosting vocational training, food distribution, discipleship training, trauma counseling, etc. In Damascus, the Center of Hope is also based in a church with activities, such as a deaf ministry, food distribution, a clinic, etc., taking place in different locations. And a Center of Hope in the city of Homs is focusing on social-economic development projects, farms and food distribution.
Like the resurrected Lazarus, the Church in Syria is standing as a witness to the power of Christ. Although more than four years have passed since the building of Father Ward’s church was hit, the damage has not been cleaned up yet; priority has been given to helping needy families, Ward explains. The members of the church help needy families however they can. They are taking to heart that as Christ’s Church, we are called to come alongside our brothers and sisters to ”…strengthen what remains, which was about to die” (Rev. 3:20).
With the recapture of eastern Aleppo, Christians can enter what had become a “no-go” area for them. It is the most destroyed part of the city. There, Open Doors is also partnering with local ministries to take care of the community’s elderly—many of whom were left alone in the fighting. Many of the community’s men, our local partner shares, were either killed, forced to fight, or “traveled” (Syrians say that someone has “traveled” when he or she flees Syria to escape the violence or to avoid joining the army).
Over 5 million Syrians, including many young people, have left their country. Their exodus leaves a hole in the social infrastructure that kept Aleppo working.
“Many of the elderly have no-one in their life right now. Some are in such poor health that they can’t leave the house or even their bed,” says Joseph Hallaq, who volunteers alongside nuns from the Sisters of Jesus and Mary. The group supports some 650 families, of which 70 percent are elderly.
Roula Makdissi, who also works for the group, says those who fled abroad want to support their parents financially but find it hard to do so. “They struggle to find work in their new countries, so they can barely support themselves,” Roula told World Watch Monitor. Any disposable income does not come easy.
“The families are worried that we, like some other organizations, would stop our support,” Hallaq says. “I think if we were to do so, this would lead to people trying all kinds of illegal ways to survive, and much more would leave the country.”
A Plan for the Future
For people of working age who stayed in Aleppo, money is also scarce. While most of these families were in good shape financially before the war, many lost it all when the bombs began to drop and the economy collapsed. Father Toni Tahan and his ministry help an average of 230 families per month.
“The economy is in a very bad shape,” he says. “The exchange rate of the dollar was, at the beginning of the war in 2011, 50 Syrian pounds; now one dollar is over 460 Syrian pounds. Prices went up; many people are without work and because of that without salary.”
With help from Open Doors, Tahan was able to start two pharmacies, creating jobs for several young pharmacists.
“The people need jobs to be no longer dependent on food packages and other help,” he explains. One of the pharmacists, Elcy Tufenkjy says the pharmacy has provided her with a comfortable job and an income. Creating opportunities for training and employment, including offering micro-loans, is widely acknowledged as a priority to help the city recover.
“We need to prepare the people for the future,” says Father Sami, a local Jesuit priest. Part of preparing people for the future, Father Sami says, is developing understanding and trust between the diverse religious groups in the country.
“We opened a clinic, distribution and educational center in Eastern Aleppo,” he said. “It is the first time the church has a presence in this Muslim environment. This is a time to be open [to Muslims] instead of closed.”
Sami said churches must first work together with one another. “Then Christian and Muslim communities must do the same.”
“We were criticized by all when we started helping Muslims as an organization—by the church, by our own bishop, by the government and by the Muslims,” Sami said. “But this is what Jesus teaches us. Some of the church said ‘Christians first,’ but I say, ‘Together first.”
Grieving Muslims Turning to Christ
The new life the Church in Syria is experiencing is finding expression through the record number of Muslims coming to Christ. Our ministry partners continue to see that the grief and pain caused by the civil war and Islamic State have opened the door for Muslims to hear and be open to the gospel.
Many receive dreams and visions of Jesus, like Syria refugee Rasha, the wife of Amar. Rasha lost both her mother and brother in the war, killed by the conflict that has affected thousands of civilians. In a dream, Rasha says she saw a vision of Jesus. She says He appeared to her in a gleam of white, saying, “I am the Christ. Follow Me.” He also gave her a prophecy that she would give birth to a daughter. Eight months pregnant at the time, her daughter was born a couple months later. She and her family are now Muslim Background Believers in Syria, following Jesus and encountering the violent and social pressures Muslims face when they leave Islam.
Stories of Muslims’ awakening to Jesus as the one true God abound in the Middle East. Two years ago, Open Doors shared a story about Karima*, a young refugee woman from Aleppo in Lebanon. She became a Christian in 2014. Karima and her husband, also a convert, were working with one of the churches in Lebanon, both of them serving as teachers to Syrian refugee children. They had their doubts about Islam before they came to Lebanon. But she saw miracles happen in her life, she says, after the pastor of a church in Lebanon prayed for her. God provided a place for them to live, a job and even healed her seriously sick son.
“Up until now, my parents didn’t know about my conversion because they fled to another country,” she says. “My family is very conservative; they are Shiites. If they heard about my conversion, they would kill me. We would lose our children.”
Since turning to Christ, Karima has participated in discipleship groups. “The biggest change in my life is that I know I have eternal life. My name is written in the book of life. God gave me peace in my life and He gave me joy. Life is beautiful, even in the midst of all the trouble.”
The Hope of the Living Christ
Aleppo might be liberated, but the war continues nearby. Huge parts of the city have been destroyed, and many people are still dependent on charity. However, restoration has begun. The first people have found new jobs and in a part of eastern Aleppo, the Church has a presence for the first time.
The Church in Syria will walk again; the billboards are right. The first steps have already been taken.
“It’s a privilege to be in our country at such transitional times, at such important times,” says Pastor Edward, who in spite of the challenges, continues to believe and witness that the Church in Syria is coming alive again. At the 2017 World Watch List press conference, he was on site to share about his country and how he sees God working in and through the Body of Christ.
“The Lord is opening new doors for ministry. New communities are coming to know Christ—new people are finding hope only in Jesus. When we see the hand of God reaching out and changing lives, that keeps us going. The Lord is enabling the Church to reach out with peace, love and forgiveness.
“He is using His Church here to be a blessing to the community and to touch their needs, and to really bring the only hope the Church can give—the hope of the living Jesus Christ.”