Towns and villages in Syria that have been home to Christians for 2,000 years are being steadily emptied as families flee persecution, the deadly violence of a civil war, fears of chemical warfare and a rash of targeted kidnappings in which Christian leaders have been held for large ransoms.
A Syrian Orthodox congregation at prayer.
But some are staying – declaring they are called to be lights in the darkness.
“Since the civil war in Syria began, Christians have increasingly suffered attacks from radical Islamists,” reports International Christian Concern. “In the past 18 months, a staggering 2 million Syrians have fled their country to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Syrian Christian leaders are asking for our help for those Christians who have fled. Unable to work, they are desperate. Help is necessary to sustain the families and very little aid has come to them so far.”
Life is even more difficult for those who have chosen to stay. While thousands of the Christians in northeastern Syria are believed to have fled, at least two thirds are staying.
“It breaks my heart to think how our long history is being uprooted,” Syriac Christian leader Ishow Goriye, told Ruth Sherlock, of the British newspaper the Daily Telegraph reporting from the Syrian area of al-Hasakah. He is among Syriac Christians who say they are determined to stay – because of their high calling to be living witnesses of Christ’s love, mercy and grace – no easy assignment in the middle of a multi-sided civil war between zealous extremists.
Syria’s Orthodox congregations have for centuries proudly claimed to be the most ancient in the world. Shortly after Christ’s crucifixion, a zealot named Saul led an expedition into Syria, intending to bring fugitive Christians back to Jerusalem to be tried for apostasy. Instead, on the road to Damascus – still today Syria’s capital – he had a dramatic experience and was transformed into the missionary who spread the Gospel throughout the known world and authored 14 of the New Testament’s 27 books.
According to St. Luke writing in Acts 11:26, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” in Syria – now Antakya, just across the border inside Turkey. Syria was the home of one of the great early leaders of Christianity, St. Ignatius.
Goriye said that he “has watched as Christian families from al-Hasakah pack their possessions on the rooftops of their vehicles and flee their homes ‘with little plan to come back,’ reports Sherlock. “Conflict in the area, desperate economic conditions, lawlessness, and persecution by rebel groups remain the main reasons for why Christian families are fleeing the area.”
Two young Syrian Christians
But, notes David Curry for the advocacy group Open Doors, “Hidden in the noise of the current political environment is still an unrepresented issue in Syria – the intentional and systematic persecution of Christians. We are calling Christians on all sides of the political debate to dedicate themselves to prayer for our fellow believers who are targeted for their faith.
“They’ve done nothing wrong, only being bold enough to associate themselves as Jesus followers” – not an easy assignment in the middle of a firefight between jihadists.
“Please pray earnestly for protection of their lives, families, businesses and freedoms. Without the support of Christians in the West, these believers face even more danger,” reported Curry. “Thousands are already refugees, prisoners, homeless and victims of kidnappings due to this systematic persecution. With the growing marginalization of Christian faith around the world, it is imperative that we unite in prayer.”
“It began as kidnapping for money, but then they started telling me I should worship Allah,” a former kidnap victim told the Telegraph’s Sherlock. “I was with five others. We were tied and blindfolded and pushed down on our knees. One of the kidnappers leant so close to my face I could feel his breath. He hissed: ‘Why don’t you become a Muslim? Then you can be free’.”