06 August 2012

What is going on in Syria?

by Dr Philip Church

I get regular emails from Middle East Concern (http://www.meconcern.org), an organisation that works with and advocates for Christians facing persecution. I received one recently that began like this, “Syrian Christians have requested our prayers concerning the continuing violence in their country.” It continues,

""Most Church leaders point out that any such targeting is not religiously motivated but is either politically motivated or is criminal activity for economic gain. Many Christians fear that radical Islamist groups are becoming more influential, and that this may lead to increased hostility towards Christians and other minorities. They fear that they may become more vulnerable to criminal activity, including kidnapping-for-ransom incidents.

Throughout the ongoing unrest, Syrian Christians have faced a dilemma of allegiance. They regard the current regime as having been a protector for many years and fear that any replacement regime is likely to prove more hostile. Yet along with others in Syria, they know that open allegiance to either the government or to the opposition could bring retaliation from the other side.""

Syria is in the news most days, and a tragic picture is unfolding. We are never quite sure of what is happening though, with lots of “unconfirmed reports” and plenty of “unverified footage.”

I have had a couple of short trips to Syria, too short for me to claim that I understand the situation. I remember vividly my time in Damascus, the city that vies with Aleppo for the claim of being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. I walked down Straight St, and turned off it to visit the house of Ananias (Acts 9:10-19). I saw the “Elizabeth Bowen-Thompson School for Girls” whose founder formed “The Society for the Betterment of Syrian Women” in around 1860, a mission has since morphed into Middle East Christian Outreach (MECO). I was ripped off by a taxi driver. I paid him enough to live on for almost a year for a short taxi ride. And I was “interviewed” by a member of the secret police in a shared taxi. I was unaware it was an interview; I thought it was a chat with a friendly local trying to discover whether I had been in the Golan Heights. Fortunately I hadn’t; if I had I would have been deported! My tour guide that time was a kiwi missionary, also since deported. She was told that she was “too effective an evangelist” to be allowed to stay! Honourable deportation I say.

I worshipped on Friday with the small evangelical Presbyterian church in the old city, but had to be careful who I chatted to afterwards. Nobody knew who the Government spies were, but they knew they were there, and would want to know about the visiting foreigner. I also went to Ma’loula, a 30 minute bus ride from Damascus, and visited what is believed to be the oldest continually used church in the world. It dates from the second century. They still speak Aramaic in Ma’loula, the language of Jesus. Indeed, there has been a Christian witness in Syria since before Paul encountered Jesus on the Road to Damascus and was prayed for by Ananias.

But my most enduring memory was that of spiritual oppression. I didn’t really notice when I was there, but each time I left I had an overwhelming sense of a spiritual burden being lifted off my shoulders. It was uncanny.

On a recent visit to Europe I met up again with a Christian brother who lives in neighbouring Lebanon. I had met him several years ago and I took the opportunity to ask for a Middle Eastern perspective on Syria. He had a number of perspectives. We had both noticed that the Western media paints Assad as an evil dictator who needs to be removed so that a democratically elected government can be installed. “The Western media like simple solutions,” he said. Apparently Assad is a puppet who does what his generals tell him. But he might not be the evil man portrayed in our media. He is, after all, a British trained ophthalmologist, a medical doctor trained to save life rather than destroy it. My friend also commented that Western democracies are fine in the West. But the West makes a grave mistake trying to impose them on Middle Eastern countries. They don’t really work in that culture.

The Syrian conflict seems to be between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority behind Assad’s Ba’ath Party. The Alawi are relatively moderate, and under their governance Syria has long had a secular constitution. The Christians have been free to practice their religion and get on with life (more or less). They have been relatively well-treated, even if spied upon. Understandably, they want little to do with the current conflict, and some say that they are looked on by the rebels as Government sympathisers. Many are leaving for neighbouring Jordan, fearing the consequences when Assad falls, as surely he must.

I recognise that this brief blog hardly touches on some of the issues. I do not pretend to being an expert on this part of the world. What is a Christian response? It is difficult to know where to start. The people of Syria have lived under oppression for many years and what we see unfolding is a natural response to that, probably encouraged by the success of uprisings in Algeria, Libya and Egypt. We could (and should) pray for freedom from oppression for all people.

Our Christian brothers and sisters are fearful of the future. We could (and should) pray for their faith to be strengthened, and for some to stay there. What a tragedy it would be if the Christians were all to leave in 2012 and the Christian witness that has been here for almost 2,000 years was to be extinguished.

And we could (and should) pray for peace and stability in Syria. The Middle East Concern email asked us to pray for “an end to violence by all parties ... [with] a just resolution and constructive reform to follow.” And we could (and should) pray for the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ in Syria, and for the Syrian church to be bold in reaching out to the rest of the population. Syria may be one of the most difficult parts of the world for Christian believers to live and work. It may also be the neediest.

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