DAMASCUS, Syria – Syrians were complacent for a long time – at least that’s how one person familiar with the war-torn Mideast country described its people.
They were “a people who felt they were more blessed than others,” as Dan David* put it, “because natural disasters and wars had not been a part of their modern history.”
But war has broken out in the past year, bloodshed has escalated and people have run for the country’s borders with their children in tow. The peace they enjoyed has been shattered.
So there’s a big question mark over the extent to which Good News is being shared inside Syria amid the tumult.
Seven percent of the population is “Christian,” a title that’s more indicative of a passed-down identity than a personal relationship with Christ, David said. It’s a long heritage – Syria’s capital, Damascus, is the place where Paul met up with followers of Christ for the first time as a fellow believer rather than a persecutor, according to Acts 9 in the New Testament.
Photo by Chris Carter
The people of war-torn Syria, predominantly Muslim, “need the Prince of Peace right now in such an urgent way,” a Christian familiar with the country says. Here, a Muslim woman prays in the mosque built around the mausoleum of Shiite saint Sayyida Ruqayya.
“During the first century A.D., the news about Jesus went into all Syria [Matthew 4:24] but only centuries later this cradle of Christianity became the cradle of Islam,” David said.
Over the past several decades, the gospel has been shared with small pockets of the people, with rough starts and stops. But believers are still there, however few, according to evangelical leaders familiar with the area.
“Today – as far as we can tell – less than 1 percent of the population of Syria knows Jesus,” said Natalie Shepherd*, a follower of Christ who lived and worked in the country. “Pray that millions of Syrian families who live inside and outside the country will begin to follow Jesus during this monumental upheaval in their homeland.”
The unrest has shaken Syrians to their core, Shepherd said.
“Fear and apprehension about what will happen next is eroding most Syrian families’ sense of well-being, leaving them with a huge deficit of hope,” she said. “Many Syrian families face desperate physical needs for warmth, food and shelter, permeated by emotional trauma – the death of loved ones, gunfire night and day and the bombing of their homes. Many families are filled with fear, wondering if and when the fighting will come to their neighborhood.”
Recent news images show the city of Homs bombed out, people freezing in the snow and struggling to get the injured to medical care. On March 8, CNN footage showed some injured people chained to beds in hospitals, torture devices close at hand.
The Syrian death toll from the past year teeters around 8,500, according to The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“Now most of the people in Damascus and all over the country are living their daily lives in fear and uncertainty,” David said, “as the country is being torn apart by fighting, arrests, torture and death. This is a time when good news is desperately needed. The people of Syria need the Prince of Peace right now in such an urgent way.”
Many are finding Him as they flee into other countries, Christian leaders say.
“People are running across the border into Lebanon, leaving everything behind, bringing only the clothes they are wearing,” said Josef*, a pastor in Lebanon. And as they do, they’ve been met by believers ready to share the reason they have hope.
“You can’t share the gospel as freely in Syria, so these people have never heard it before,” said Sam Lawson*, a Christian worker in the Middle East. “In a short period of time, we’ve been able to share with the same number of Syrians that it would take us months and months to share with in Syria.”
Some have believed, and house groups grow stronger by the day among the refugees, Lawson said.
“There are several key families where the believers are focusing and investing their time, and the gospel continues to go out wherever they go,” he said. “But the enemy attacks in various ways, so a key prayer request … is that nothing distracts from the Word going out among the refugees, and that it will bear lasting fruit,” especially once they return to Syria at some point in the future.
Believers in the region ask for Christians in the West to pray for Syria every time they see that nation in the news:
– that Syria’s Christians would know God’s peace and be courageous in sharing hope and truth with their families and neighbors.
– that the people of Syria would have dreams and visions of Jesus Christ and seek to know more about Him.
– that believers in neighboring countries will have strength, protection and wisdom as they seek to meet the physical and spiritual needs of refugees.
– that what seems meant for evil will be used for good so that many Syrian families will hear the gospel and be saved.
*Names have been changed.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ava Thomas is a writer/editor for the International Mission Board based in Europe.)