On March 6th, 2011, a group of Syrian teenagers ran through the streets of Daraa, a city in southern Syria, with a can full of paint and scrawled graffiti on two walls. As the paint streamed onto the walls in bold lines, the young teenagers could not have imagined how those simple words would kindle an uprising, igniting the Syrian civil war that is now progressing into its fifth year.
Speculations are rampant about the motivations for this act. Was it a political statement intended to threaten the regime? Did they act as rebellious teenagers in the age-old youthful opposition to authority?
“It is your turn, doctor,” one of them wrote on a wall, referring to the president who is a trained ophthalmologist. Another scrawled, “The people want to topple the regime,” a slogan that was heard in Egypt and Tunisia in the preceding months, during the “Arab Spring”. Their words on the walls in Daraa would spark widespread protests against the regime of president Bashar al-Assad.
The government reacted immediately. The group of fifteen boys between 10 and 15 years old were arrested, interrogated and brutally tortured. Among massive public outcry, people spontaneously gathered in large numbers on the streets of Daraa to protest against these arrests. Though the boys were eventually released, the uprising gained momentum as protests continued.
Thousands took to the streets, not only in Daraa, but also in other cities all over Syria. On March 18th of that year, security forces attempting to stop a protest rally in Daraa killed several protesters; many others were wounded. They were the first casualties in a growing conflict that has now claimed thousands of lives. The international community loudly criticized the regime of Bashar Assad for its response to the protests.
Within weeks, protests were organized all over Syria, several of which erupted into violence. The death count rose into the hundreds- mainly civilian casualties. Violence escalated rapidly in the first months of the conflict, and by the end of April, the Syrian president had dispatched troops with tanks to restore order in the streets of Daraa.
Four years later, there is still no end in sight for the Syrian conflict. Up to now, over 220,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian civil war (Human Rights Watch estimated the number on January 1st, 2015 at 206,603).
About 3.8 million Syrians have had to flee their country according to UNHCR data. Many now live in tents or other temporary housing in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other neighboring countries. More than 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced, reports UNHCR. That means that almost half of the Syrian population has left their homes as a result of the violence.
Many Christians have also fled Syria because of the violence. Estimates of church leaders in Syria indicate that some 40% of the Christian population has left Syria and is now temporarily living in surrounding countries or in the Western world. Recently, more than 200 Christians were abducted when fighters of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) seized their villages northwest of Hassaka in northeastern Syria. This incident caused increased fear in the Christian community in Syria.
Father, we hardly know where to begin praying for fellow believers in Syria and for those who have fled the violence to surrounding nations. Indeed, we pray for all in Syria who have been touched by this prolonged violence. We pray for peace to return, and we pray for this nation to be ruled by godly justice. We pray for Your comfort to fall upon those who mourn the death of family and friends and upon those whose loved ones have been abducted. We pray for Your protection over those who have been captured by IS and for their safe return to family. We pray for Your provision and presence to encourage and empower both those who remain and those who have fled. In the midst of suffering and fear, may Your Word bring comfort and truth, and may the gospel penetrate every facet of life, effecting God-honoring change in this nation. In the name of Jesus, who bends his ear to hear our cries for help and answers, Amen.