What’s next for Christians in northern Syria after the Turkey-Russia peace deal?

October 24, 2019 by Christopher Summers in Persecution updates

On Tuesday, the five-day ceasefire in northern Syria between Turkey and Kurdish forces in Syria ended. While the ceasefire was often threatened by constant skirmishes, for Christians in northern Syria, the 120-hour period was a welcome quiet from the intense bombing campaign and shelling that had been constant companions during the Turkish military action.

 

But with the ceasefire over: What’s next for northern Syria? And what about the Christian minority community in the region? There are 40,000-50,000 believers in this area—what’s going to happen to them?

“We welcome any agreement that creates peace in the area,” says Pastor George, a church leader at an Alliance church in Qamishli, northern Syria, who works with partners of Open Doors in the region. “We had a prayer meeting [on Tuesday] for the country; it was at 6 p.m., during the last few hours before the end of the ultimatum that the Turkish government gave to the Kurds. We trusted God that He would protect us and not allow anything bad to happen to us.”

Tuesday night brought some clarity, though as has often happened in Syria over the last decade, that “clarity” is complicated and involves lots of countries. The main development is that Turkey signed an agreement with Russia—a close ally of the Syrian government—that ensures Turkey’s military actions will stop, and Russia and Syria will make certain that Kurdish forces will stay behind a 20-mile “buffer zone” south of the Syrian-Turkish border.

For Christians, this was a welcome development. “We prayed hard for so long, and [on Tuesday] night we heard about the agreement between Russia and Turkey,” Pastor George says, “to give the Kurdish troops another 150 hours and to create a border line between Syria and Turkey where Russian and Syrian soldiers will do joint patrols on the borders, whereas Qamishli will stay as it is, peaceful and safe.”

The agreement says Turkish troops can stay in the areas they seized during their incursion. Syrian and Russian troops will control the rest of the border. This will end the control the Kurds have over the border and the agreement gives the Kurdish fighters 150 hours to withdraw.

Pastor Naeem Yousef, from the Alliance church in Malikiyah, is happy about the agreement. “The agreement between Russia and Turkey has a positive impact on the area,” he says. “The city is calm and normal after this positive result; we thank God for it. We pray that God would help us invest in these difficult times to reflect God’s beauty and grace.”

For Christians, an important part of the agreement is that Turkey, Russia and Syria have pledged to not allow any separatist agenda within Syrian territory. This appears to be good news for Christians, who were afraid of ISIS gaining back control over the region, which ISIS held for a portion of the Syrian Civil War.

Another worry for Christians in the region is what peace will look like long-term—and when displaced people might be allowed back into their cities and homes. “In Ras al Ain, there are still [Turkish] troops, so it is still not possible for the displaced to return home,” Pastor Yousef says. “Most displaced [people] are from Ras al Ain and Afrin, and they are staying in Maabadah. We’ve sent them a doctor to give them medical help.”

In the city of Hasakah, a woman named Nazira is coordinating the support provided by the Alliance Church to the displaced people who found refuge there. “Frankly, people in Hasakah have lost faith in theoretical speeches,” she says. “They want to see it happen on the ground. Displaced people have heard that their houses have been robbed, so they can’t return. They need prayer to feel safe; they are afraid because their future is unclear. I need prayer for strength. I worked hard to get in touch with them and I talked to them about God and had some good experiences with them.”

Pastor George echoes this uncertainty, but expresses hope for the future. “[Long term,] things are still not that clear,” the pastor says. “We can’t say that we are in complete peace. The displaced people haven’t returned to their houses, but the agreement gave them hope that they one day may return. “We are looking forward to seeing what’s going to happen.”

In the meantime, these Christians in northern Syria are happy to have peace, so they might get back to the work of being a church, glorifying God and living out the gospel. “We as a church are not afraid,” Pastor George says. “Our church-building process stopped in August of 2013. On Tuesday, we restarted building it, despite the circumstances. I put the first block [down] to rebuild. We trust God that He will continue His work, [that] despite everything He will help and protect us.”

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