“Until recently, the town had managed to remain mostly unaffected by the civil war that has already claimed more than 100,000 lives. A visit by the Daily Telegraph last year found it ringed by government checkpoints but suffering from the lack of pilgrims and tourists who are normally vital to its economy.”
Residents say several rebel groups – a mix of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra and the more moderate Free Syrian Army, attacked the village.
“First they took a brick factory owned by a Christian guy, who is now missing,” said the resident. “Then at around 5.30 a.m., a car bomb detonated at the checkpoint at the entrance to the village. Some of the rebels entered a home near the checkpoint belonging to Yousef Haddad, a Christian. They tried to force him to convert to Islam.”
A nun living in a convent in the village told the Associated Press that 27 orphans living in the convent were taken to nearby caves for shelter.
How are Christians under such assault supposed to defend their faith? Many cite Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane who chastised the Apostle Peter for drawing a sword in defense of the Saviour.
Egyptian Christians are under the same pressure – with thousands opting to leave embattled areas rather than join in the fighting on one side or the other.
On Sunday, the news network SAT-7 aired footage of Egyptians worshipping in the remains of the Evangelical Church of Beni Mazar in the town of Minia, Upper Egypt, It was one of over 80 Egyptian churches targeted in violent.
“Dark smears mark where flames licked the outside walls of the church building after arsonists set it ablaze,” reported SAT-7. “The charred hull of the interior is crumbling and peeling where wood and paint previously existed. Singed wiring hangs loose from the ceiling. On 14th August, Rev. Hany Jacque received a phone call notifying him that angry rioters had broken in the door of the church. For seven hours, the rioters stole furniture from inside, broke the glass windows, and burned the church’s books, including its Bibles. They also looted and burned its community services building next door, which had provided medical and financial assistance to all the residents of Beni Mazar, regardless of their religion.”
A mother and son light candles in the Syriac Orthodox tradition
On camera, Jacque reflected on the destruction, “The Church is not walls and buildings. The Church is us, the people of God. They burned and destroyed the building, but it will never be possible for them to burn and destroy the Church because the Church will remain forever. If this was the cost for the God’s people in this place, that’s all right. Pay it, because God’s people must always speak the truth. This is a small price to pay for us to speak the truth.”
Congregants filled the desecrated building with songs of praise and the words of Scripture, singing, “Jesus, we bless your name.” They joined hands and prayed that God would accomplish His will in the Church. The song leader encouraged the congregation, saying, “The joy of the Lord is your strength…God’s glory in the midst of the Church is a sign for what is coming in the land of Egypt. The Church will be filled with glory.”
Attacks targeting Egypt’s Christians intensified after former president Mohamed Morsi was removed from power.
“It is evident that the almost universally non-violent response to these attacks (the worst assault on Christians in Egypt for almost 600 years) has greatly impressed many Muslims,” reoirted SAT-7’s Dr. Terence Ascott.“This has been a very public turning of the other cheek by the Christians of Egypt, and a very public act of obedience to Jesus’ injunction for His followers to ‘…love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44).”
But turning the other cheek is difficult.
“As Syrian Christians, we used to live in peace under Assad,” an unidentified Syrian Christian told International Christian Concern. “Assad is not a perfect man, yet he gave the Christians freedom and rights the same as Muslims. We could wear what we wanted and we had churches all over the country.
“Then when the uprising started, we began to see many Islamist jihadists from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. They began to kill us (the Christians) and other minorities who are considered infidels. The Islamists killed us with knives and even decapitated some and burned down our churches.
A vandalized Syrian church sanctuary
“Now, Christians are not welcome under their Islamist rule. No Western country will give us visas. Many times, we feel like the whole world, want to see the Christians of Syria slaughtered!”
Being a light in such darkness – defending the faith as Jesus would – is a difficult assignment.
But some extraordinary Syrians are doing it.