MIDDLE EAST (BP) — As Syria’s murderous civil war spreads, global leaders have begun to focus on the dangerous regional struggles affecting the conflict: Syrian ally Iran versus Arab regional powers, Sunni versus Shiite Muslims, the fate of Syria’s unstable neighbors and what might happen next if the regime of President Bashar Assad falls.
But on the streets of Homs, symbolic heart of the Syrian rebellion, what’s happening right now matters far more.
The body count there mounts daily. The Syrian army began raining rockets and mortar fire on the city of more than 1 million people Feb. 4 — apparently determined to crush the 11-month-old uprising in its cradle. Attacks continue, killing both ragtag rebels and civilians in neighborhoods controlled by insurgents. Women weep for dead husbands and children. Families hide in their homes, fearing not only artillery fire but death by sniper if they step outside.
One observer watching from a distance feels the weight of the unfolding tragedy deeply.
“It hits pretty close to home with me,” said a Southern Baptist worker based in the Middle East. “We have some really dear, close friends and ministry partners who live in a neighboring country, but they’re from that city. Their families are in that city. There are [Christian] believers in that city that we don’t have a status on right now. So it’s really difficult to watch.”
The worker often tells churches back home in the United States that things aren’t nearly as bad in the Middle East as they are portrayed in the news. But in the case of Syria, where a ban on international media coverage blocks access to most areas, he believes the situation is even worse than the bloody images splashing across TV screens and newspapers.
“It has the potential of descending into full-out civil war, and that would be tragic,” he said. “It’s such a huge burden on my heart right now. This is a country of over 20 million people — Sunni, Shia, Alawite, Druse, Orthodox, Christian, Bedouin and Gypsies, you name it. And it’s a place where we have virtually no access, no sustainable presence or witness right now. It’s one of the darkest, least-engaged places in the whole Middle East.”
The immediate future looks bleak, he added. Despite increasing army defections to the rebels, the Syrian military remains far more powerful and well-equipped than insurgent factions. He doubts the Assad regime, which has held power for 40 years, will step down. Even if they do, the many contending forces in Syria and the wider region complicate Syria’s future.
One example of the complexity: the tenuous status of Syria’s ancient Christian community. The Syrian city of Antioch was the site of the first Christian church outside Jerusalem, according to the New Testament. Syrian Christians account for up to 10 percent of the national population. Most of them, whether Orthodox or evangelical, reportedly support the Assad government, which has offered them a measure of protection from Islamic radicals.
What will happen to them if the regime run by minority Alawites, a relatively moderate offshoot of Shia Islam, falls and an Islamist government dominated by the Sunni majority takes its place? The thousands of persecuted Christian refugees who have flooded into Syria from neighboring Iraq and other unstable countries in the region share that fear. Syrian Orthodox leaders have called for gradual reforms rather than regime change.
“Look what has happened [to minority Christians] in Iraq and now in Egypt,” a Syrian Christian woman told Global Post news service. “Assad in power means that won’t happen here.”
Despite the deepening fear and darkness, God is moving “in incredible ways,” the Southern Baptist worker said.
“We’re getting just a glimpse of that because we have Syrian refugees who are coming across the border into neighboring countries,” he reported. “In one country in particular, we’ve had a relief project going on. Over the past few months in one area alone, more than 10,000 people have heard the Good News of Jesus. And we’re seeing response that is amazing. God is stirring among the nations right now and drawing people to Himself in the midst of tragedy and suffering.”
As people in the West watch the tumult unfolding throughout the Middle East, “we have a crisis of belief,” he said. “We want to believe that God is at work, but it’s hard because of everything that’s going on. We need people to believe that God is orchestrating events of our day according to His redemptive purpose — from Tunisia to Bahrain, all across the whole region. This is all part of His plan. Whether in war or peace, pray that God will be glorified in this. Pray that doors will be opened in these places. Pray for fertile soil.
“The thing that saddens me most is this: You get a sense of excitement when you see millions of people chanting for democracy. But on the other side of that change is ultimately the same hopelessness that everyone began with, because they don’t have Christ. That’s what cuts you to the core. So regardless of what’s happening — war, peace, whoever the ruler or the regime — the task is still the same. You’ve got to watch what God is doing and be ready to respond, like we are among the refugees of Syria, and expect amazing things.”
He asked Christians to pray that believers in Syria and beyond will be courageous.
“Our tendency is to pray for preservation,” he said, “but we should pray for much more: that they would be a light, that they would be bold, even in situations where they are oppressed and suffering. I want to pray for more than just preservation. I want to pray that this would be a time that the church would be bold and courageous. In times of war and human suffering when people’s needs are so great is when they are open to the Gospel. It’s a time when they need to be confronted with the love and the claims of Christ.”
Most of all, he pleaded, pray for access to the millions of people in the Middle East who hunger for real peace and have nowhere to turn.
“We know that God is moving; we just need access to these people,” he said. “We feel there is fertile soil for the Gospel right now.”
Erich Bridges is senior writer with the International Mission Board.