Syrian Pastor Fights to Keep the Church Strong in a Dangerous Region
Before the defeat of ISIS in Raqqa in October, Pastor Simon* remained in the South of Syria because He saw God at work. He feels he has been called to build the church. “God is moving and doing great things around us,” he said. In this conversation, he shares how God has used the persecution of the last six years to draw him closer to His heart and to bring Syrians to Him.
“When the crisis started I worked as a pastor in one of the cities in the South of Syria. My family and I were living in a village close to that place. After about a year, we had to move from there because of the fighting. Our daughter kept waking up in middle of the night, she was so afraid, even shaking because of the explosions,” the pastor says.
At that time he wasn’t the first pastor of the church in the city. “The other pastor had left the country, and he asked me to take over. Right at that time, the terrorists [many Syrians name all the rebel groups terrorists] attacked our village, we had to leave and went to another city.”
Pastor Simon, who is a pastor in the city where he now lives and in another village, faithfully continues to work for the church in the city he fled.
“I go there for two days once a month. I don’t use the shortest way, that road is controlled by the terrorists. So instead of driving around 50 km, I take another road that is 160 km. I visit the people in the city and invite them to the meeting before we distribute the food parcels. Only Christians come to this meeting…
When the crisis started there were some 900 Christian families in the city, about 25 families from an evangelical background. Now only 310 Christian families stayed, including three evangelical families. We support those 310 families with your money. The food parcel is making a huge difference, it helps them to stay.”
The pastor gives an illustration of how needy the families are using the example of Middle Eastern hospitality. In this region, people always receive guests with coffee or tea and many times with a good meal. “People even stopped offering coffee to their guests because they didn’t have it anymore. The people really depend on our parcel.”
Open Doors not only supports Pastor Simon’s church for the food packages. “In the summer of 2016, you helped us to reconstruct several partly destroyed homes of Christian families. You helped us to rebuild the Catholic church building; as Protestants, this built an important bridge to the other churches. Many organizations are helping with reconstruction, but there was no organization to help the Christians.”
As mentioned, some two-thirds of the Christians left the city. “In the places where I work as a pastor, we don’t have young ministers anymore, the last one left us eight months ago and relocated to another country. He was the worship leader. The whole music team left, we now sing with music from the internet. There are no young men left, in the churches 80 to 90% are women or elderly people, young men are fleeing. I have a volunteer team of young women helping me with our Sunday school ministry.”
Reaching Muslims and Druze
In one of the places where Pastor Simon works, they developed a very inspiring work among the people with a Druze background.
“In the past years, we were able to baptize many people from a Druze background. Some of them were elders in their religion, they were baptized in their religious clothes. Also, some believers from a Muslim background were baptized. Druze face persecution because of their newfound faith. I visited a family. The brother of the wife had tried to run her over with his car because she was baptized, but the Lord saved her. Her 8-year-old son was with her. “Next time I’ll kill you,” the brother said afterward. I prayed with them and now search for a safer place for the family.”
In the other city, Pastor Simon works in, they support 200 families with food supply with the support of Open Doors. “The packages make a huge difference, I can tell a hundred stories about that. For example, we support an orphanage where some 80 orphans and 37 elderly people live. The government asked us to do this while they stopped other organizations from supporting this institution.
The staff are all Muslims and Druze, but the teachers gave us the freedom to speak about Jesus. The children now sing Christian songs. On Mother’s Day, we went there to give presents to the elderly women. I could see tears in eyes of the women when the volunteers hugged them and combed their hair.”
All the beautiful things he sees happening are a blessing but also a burden for the pastor. “When I see the number of people coming to know the Lord, this puts a pressure on me. I know that if I were to leave, no one would stay to serve these people. I pray to God: ‘If we leave, Lord, send someone else.’” Some time ago a pastor came to advise me to leave. The pastor never arrived at my place, he was kidnapped, and only after one a half years was he released. I feel great pressure to stay, we’re going through pain, but we still have hope there will be a solution. But I can’t guarantee I will still be in Syria six months from now.”
Prayer for Wisdom, Healing and Education
He lists the difficulties he and his family face: “Our most urgent need is the health situation of our 16-year-old daughter Rachel. She is helping me in the orphanage. One day she developed a problem in one of her legs, she hasn’t been able to walk for a month. The doctors examined her but couldn’t find the reason. Her situation has not improved.”
But there are more difficulties. “The level of education has dropped a lot. For this reason, we struggle with whether to stay or leave. It’s not only about our security, it’s about the future of our children. We have a problem with kidnappings, especially kidnapping of students. Groups do this for ransom. As we offer support and help, the evil world thinks that we are rich. For that reason, I always bring my girls aged 4, 8 and 16 to school.”
Besides education, Pastor Simon mentions the medical situation as a difficulty. “The good doctors emigrated. Those who remained are not very experienced. Because of this, our children want to leave. Their friends have already left. I would say the pressure on us as parents has increased from the side of our daughters. In the first years many people left the country, now you see that more go. They are invited by family members who left the country earlier. My daughters say goodbye to friends on Facebook or WhatsApp every day.”
The support he receives from Open Doors helps him. “God strengthens me through an organization like yours that helps us to support the people and even helps with retreats for church leaders. The Lord has not yet told me to leave. When I meet with people in their pain, I see that my presence makes a big difference. They say, ‘Don’t leave us here.’”
The Decision to Stay
Personally, the pastor has seen a development in his walk with God over the past six years of war. “We didn’t have problems like we now have in Syria. We had some financial needs, but no crisis. Last year, my preaching changed, my understanding of the Bible changed. When I read the book of Daniel in the Bible, I started to realize the true meaning of the crisis. I discovered that the Bible teaches that Christians are persecuted. I encourage people to stay, I speak from my own experience. When I say that God saves, I have the same experience as the people in the church.”
“God is in control, He controls everything. Sometimes he does this from behind a curtain; we don’t see Him working. Time will come when we will understand that He was always there. What the Lord did in the past six years, he saved hundreds of thousands of Muslims in different countries. Before the war, we only saw some believers from a Muslim background. God is moving and doing great things around us, many are being saved.”
*Names changed for security reasons