Syria's Last Chance
Syria's Last Chance
In Syria, the pursuit of peace has become a driving passion of the nation's Christian leaders. As violence worsens, longstanding Christian support for the regime of President Bashar Assad is weakening. A growing number of Christians believe regime change is necessary even if they don't dare go public with their views.
Starting in March 2011, Syrians took part in Arab Spring protests against President Assad. Violence soon broke out as soldiers fired at unarmed demonstrators in Daraa. Analysts estimate that in the past 16 months, 14,000 people have died—and the number is growing. In late May, militias in Houla slaughtered 108 civilians, including 49 children and 35 women. One 11-year-old witnessed his family being murdered.
Christians and other religious leaders are working alongside activists to avert a slide into all-out civil war. Christian leaders say every effort must be made to stop a replay of the kind of sectarian violence that split Iraq along religious-ethnic fault lines. Syria has a Sunni Muslim majority, but the minority Alawite Muslim sect holds most of the power. Christians, mostly Orthodox and Catholic, make up about 9 percent of Syria's 22 million people. Evangelicals compose less than 1 percent of the population.
One large Christian ministry active in Syria is the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. "Christians over the past six months have found themselves a new vocation: to be the peacemakers of Syria," Carl Hétu, director of the agency's Canadian office, told a Canadian news outlet. Hétu thinks that the warring sects might listen to the Christians' call for a ceasefire and dialogue, "because they are well respected." In comments to Open Doors, the religious freedom ministry, one Damascus pastor said, "The church is praying non-stop. What will happen next? Only God knows the answer, but the church is definitely standing in the gap, praying."
Meanwhile, relief work undertaken by Christians is touching many lives:
- In villages surrounding Homs, the besieged Syrian city of 1 million, Christians are taking into their own homes up to 50,000 fellow believers to provide emergency shelter. Homs is a key city for opposition forces and subject to repeated artillery attacks. Some reports indicate that extremists have forced Christians to flee their homes.
- In Lebanon, there are about 24,000 Syrian refugees. About 75 percent are women and children. World Vision is working with local Lebanese to set up four safe zones for children to play. (About 500 children have died in the conflict so far.)
- In Jordan, there are as many as 122,000 Syrian refugees, according to Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh. Local evangelical congregations as well as Catholics and Canadian Mennonites have started programs to provide housing, medicine, and school kits to thousands of families.
The Matthew 18 Model
Syrian Christians are also undertaking what they believe will be a more difficult but potentially more fruitful task: faith-based reconciliation.
In mid-May, 50 Syrians joined a discussion group in Cairo. Druze, Muslims, and Christians took part. Among the participants were a former candidate for Syria's parliament, a female art enthusiast, a hip 20-something media consultant, and an American globe-trotting professor-peacemaker. They share the twin goals of regime change and democracy for Syria.
Some 22 years ago, Brian Cox, an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University School of Law and senior vice president for Dispute Resolution Training for the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, developed a model of reconciliation based on Matthew 18. He believes this approach will prove useful in Syria and spoke at the meeting in Cairo.