I was sitting in a pastor’s office in downtown Beirut last Friday, when a physician walked in. As we struck up a conversation, I discovered he was a Syrian pediatrician. He was not on holiday. Like many Syrians in Lebanon, he has no place to go. He and his family have fled the war for the sake of their lives and their future. They have lost everything. As he shared, he stepped aside from time to time to cry. It was heart-breaking!
As we talked, I began to hear a side to the conflict, one often lost in the papers I read. Having been to Syria several times myself, I have found the Assad regime to be despotic and constricting, sapping the human spirit and hindering the freedom of many, including the church. His authoritarian state and its Mukhabarat have snuffed out creativity and discussion. So I have hoped the present civil war might lead to a better future, though its present effects break the heart. Listening to this Christian pediatrician, it was clear he had a different view. So I asked him this question: “If you could speak to my church, what would you say?” Here’s what he said—
“You need to know that there are 23 million people in Syria, and most are suffering. The war has torn Syria apart (see a recent Economist cover story, “Syria-The Death of a Country”). Many are without electricity, food, and water. Much of infrastructure (power plants, water supplies, food stores) has been destroyed. Homes, factories, schools, and hospitals have been razed. Second, those referred to in most Western papers as “rebels”, “freedom fighters”, and “revolutionaries” are nothing more than terrorists. They are mostly Islamic groups, as dangerous to the West as they are to the Arab world, who are interested in gaining control. Jihadists are arriving in Syria every day to join them. Third, if and when they gain the upper hand, it will be chaos. It will also be a disaster for the Christians (just as in Iraq). The church will be persecuted and driven out. Assad, leading a minority government, has been committed to protecting minorities. But with his removal, such security will be gone.”
Maybe there is some truth to this. As Thomas Friedman noted in a recent column, if Syria disintegrates, it could be another Afghanistan—an untamed land, with jihadists, chemical weapons, and surface to air missiles all freely floating about. But speaking to another believer, one very familiar with the conflict and lives in the region, there is another side to this. This is what he would say to our church—
“It is necessary to think historically. Many of these Mideast nations were created artificially, their lines drawn after last century’s world wars. The only way to keep the tribes in order, with all of their social and religious differences, was to have strong men in place. But these men, like Assad, are coming to their necessary end, and tribes, fueled by ever increasing religious passions, are reasserting themselves. Islamic governments may replace them and rule for a season, but people will eventually turn against them. This is playing out in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has overreached for power and control. Extreme Islamic leaders have no room to share power with others. So in the process, it is depriving itself of a broad base to sustain it.
Hence, it may take another ten years of fighting in Syria, with an Islamic government eventually taking hold. But people will push back, and Christians might emerge with a stronger voice and a better future under a government that eventually becomes more representative. Syria will be harder to put back together after the war, and so it may also emerge as several nations. Under a Saddam and a Mubarak and an Assad, the church has had a certain security, but at the price of freely sharing a gospel witness, of having the ability to grow. At best, it could only maintain the status quo, be confined into a rigid box.( I saw this first hand, especially in Damascus where Christians I met each time felt very tentative to publically identify their faith.) So this conflict may be necessary and long. But in the end, it may lead to a much better future for the church. Revolutions are always messy, always a process, and often necessary.”
So here’s what I am asking–what should the church (our church) do in the meantime? Here are three things that stand out: First, we must pray fervently for God’s will in the region. Pray for those who have lost family members. Nearly 100,000, mostly civilians, have been killed in the fighting so far. Pray especially for our brothers and sisters in the church, many who have lost everything. Pray for godly leaders to emerge. Pray for the impressive ministries emerging to Muslims. I am seeing this firsthand, as I work with believers in Lebanon. In our collaborative work with a number of ministry partners, nearly three fourths of them are actively doing this ministry right now.
Second, contribute to the humanitarian need. Groups like Heart for Lebanon are doing an impressive work, distributing food, and looking for powerful ways to also share the good news of Jesus. But they cannot do this without our help.
Third, be a voice for justice. Be the conscience of our government. Speak up for the rights of the church. Keep the welfare of believers before Congressmen and Senators, who are inclined to think only geopolitically (what’s best in America’s interests? How can we work to see a weakened Syria counter a stronger Iran or a Russian influence?). We must keep in front of them the rights of the persecuted. If we as the church don’t speak up, who will?