BEIRUT – Forgive? Don’t talk to me about forgiving. You didn’t see what they did to my father, to my brother, to my daughter. You didn’t see what my son’s body looked like when they brought him home in a box.
A lot of Syrians will declare something like that – with blood in their eyes. The Syrian civil war that began last year has turned into a fight to the death between factions determined to destroy each other. Clans want payback. Families want revenge. Some of those hatreds seep across the border into Lebanon, where the same ethnic and religious tensions exist.
But Fadi*, a Lebanese follower of Christ, has learned about the power of forgiveness. And he wants to share it with Syrians, the people he once hated.
Now a 40-year-old husband and father, Fadi suffered terrible mistreatment by his father while growing up in a traditional Christian family in Lebanon. It was so bad that he ran away at 13 to join the Lebanese military, only to suffer even more brutal abuse in the ranks. Angry and bewildered, he stopped believing in God – or anything else. He threw himself into soldiering, eventually sustaining eight serious wounds in his unit’s frequent cross-border clashes with Syrian forces. Any of the injuries could have killed him, but he survived to fight again.
Fadi (name changed) looks over a storage room filled with aid packages for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Now a joyful servant of Christ, Fadi once hated Syrians. He fought them for years as a Lebanese soldier. But God taught him to love and forgive Syrians and others who hurt him. “When the war started in Syria in 2011, I went to my pastor and told him I’m ready to serve the Syrian refugees,” Fadi says. “I was convinced that in order to love them, I needed to be available to show God’s love in a practical way.”
A fellow soldier gave him a Bible, but he tore it up in anger. As an afterthought, however, he put the pieces in the breast pocket of his battle vest. The next time he saw combat, the Bible stopped a bullet meant for his heart.
“That incident affected me a lot,” Fadi says. “The book that I refused safeguarded me from death. I started to desire to know more of Jesus. I prayed to Him, saying, ‘If You are really the God of love, then help me to love You. Let me love my father and love those who abused me so I can know that You really love me.’ In time, the love of Christ filled my heart toward those people. Since that date, I’m a new creation in Christ. I cannot forget the injuries or the pain, but they helped me discover God’s love.”
Fadi retired from the military, started a family and continued to grow in Christ. Still, he harbored deep hatred for his enemies: the Syrians. So he asked God to give him love for them, too.
“When the war started in Syria in 2011, I went to my pastor and told him I’m ready to serve the Syrian refugees,” Fadi recounts. “I was convinced that in order to love them, I needed to be available to show God’s love in a practical way.”
In typical Fadi fashion, he put his life on the line to do it – visiting border villages under threat by Syrian forces.
“Many times, as we were serving the Syrian refugees on the borders, we were facing a direct attack from the Syrian army,” he says. “I was trained because of my years of experience in the army not to be afraid of those attacks. One time we were visiting a family in a village divided from Syria by a riverbank. As we were there, this village started to be attacked randomly by the Syrian army – bombs and gunshots. We saw dozens of women and children escaping from the border areas toward us, asking for refuge. We needed to leave the area as soon as possible. But at the same time, I had the feeling that I’m like any one of them and that I cannot leave them. So we remained in that village until the attacks stopped.”
Once he encountered a unit of Syrian soldiers after visiting a family living just across the border. He greeted the soldiers, convinced he would be shot at any moment. But they let him go on his way. “I never did that again, because God gave us wisdom on where to go and how to do things,” he says with a grin.
Another time he aided a Syrian family crossing a river into Lebanon. “Why are you risking your life to serve us?” the mother in the family asked.
“I shared the love of God in my life,” Fadi says. “She told me that many times she had refused to accept a New Testament from her Syrian Christian friend. But she said, ‘As you have told me about the love of Christ, I promise you I’m going to read the New Testament. I want to know more about that love.’
“I don’t know the reasons behind all that’s happening in Syria,” Fadi says. “But I know that God’s reason is to share His message, His Word, with those people. I love to serve them.”
Last year Fadi and a few co-workers visited a Syrian Muslim friend in Lebanon. It was the day before Eid al-Adha, the Islamic festival that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. (Muslims believe Abraham took Ishmael, rather than Isaac, to Mount Moriah to be sacrificed.) Hundreds of sheep slaughtered for the observance hung in shop windows and on street corners as Muslim families prepared for the holiday.
Fadi’s Muslim friend, Abu Khaled*, fled his town in Syria last year after 20 days of shelling by Syrian forces. He hid with his family in the sewers, then walked 50 miles to reach Lebanon. He hasn’t seen his oldest son, captured in Syria, in more than a year. The son might be dead. But Abu Khaled, an influential older man who has become a leader among Syrian refugees, doesn’t want revenge. He wants reconciliation.
“If we decide not to forgive, the cycle of death will continue,” he said, rubbing his gray patch of beard. “But someone needs to sacrifice.”
With his permission, the Christian visitors told the full story from the Bible of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son – and God’s intervention to supply an animal as a substitute. Then they talked about Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God who became a sacrifice for all. Abu Khaled listened carefully. The conversations will continue.
As they prepared to leave, Fadi embraced Abu Khaled.
“He is my brother,” Fadi said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erich Bridges is a global correspondent for the International Mission Board. Contributions to relief ministry among Syrian refugees can be made by visiting imb.org/syrianrefugees? and designating “Syria relief” in the comment line. For updates on how God is at work through the crisis in Syria and ways to pray and help, email [email protected] Contributions to the spread of God’s Word among Syrians can be made by calling Faith Comes By Hearing at 1-800-545-6552 and designating a gift for the Syrian Refugees Project.)