Syria desperately needs its Christian community, but they must be active in witness and service wherever they have opportunity. In a one-hour interview for SAT-7, Revd Joseph Kassab, President of the Supreme Council of Evangelical Churches of Syria and Lebanon, appealed to Syrian believers to remain in their homeland as a “sign of hope” despite their falling numbers.
Revd Kassab was speaking as Syria, already ravaged by nine years of war, is now battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Since 2011 Syria’s estimated Christian population of 1.2 million has plummeted almost 40 per cent to around 744,000, according to Open Doors. The Syrian pound, too, has collapsed and 80 per cent of the population are now poor.
Despite the challenges, Aleppo-born Kassab exhorted his fellow Syrian believers to continue as a living witness in the country. He spoke in an interview on a one-hour special, Christians Between Existence and Influence. Instead of resigning themselves to their situation or withdrawing into a Christian bubble, Kassab encouraged Christians to break out of a “survival mentality” and to be agents of positive change in every area of life.
“Christian presence and existence in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) is diminishing,” he said. “We must compensate by being present and sharing the message. Christians themselves must change and not wait for the circumstances to change.”
“We must be convinced that we are salt,” he continued. “The Bible doesn’t say we need to be large in numbers or be the majority to be effective and active. The value of Christians is not in their number. How can we be effective? By being present in schools, universities, society, the economy, and nation-related issues. We must get out of the minority mentality even if we are treated like that.”
Kessab also tackled fears surrounding the spread of COVID-19. Although the number of officially recorded cases is low (2,830 at 1 September 2020), unverified reports by health professionals in Damascus suggest that actual infection numbers are far higher (OCHA). Health facilities, meanwhile, even in the majority of the country that is back under government control are at full stretch.
“COVID-19 made us feel vulnerable and the whole world is vulnerable,” Kessab said. “The lesson we learn from this is that it’s not just about me or my family; the whole planet is affected.”
Kessab compared the suffering Syria has experienced this decade to a kind of crucifixion. But, he added, “The cross is a Passover to a new life, much like the Passover in the Old Testament allowed the Jews to pass to a new land. We are called to be like Jesus who wasn’t afraid of death to go to the new life. We must be like Him and endure our weaknesses and circumstances like He did.”
Throughout the years of Syria’s war, Christian communities have been at the heart of welcoming displaced people from other areas, whatever their faith. Many churches have been active in distributing aid with the limited means they have.
Kessab encouraged believers to continue this holistic witness, calling on them to “help the poor”, to be pioneering in reconciliation and energetic in demonstrating that people of different faiths can live together harmoniously.
“Our testimony is watched by Muslims in the East and Christians in the West,” he concluded. “We are being watched to see if we can coexist, love one another, and express our faith without pressure. Christians are a sign of hope in the MENA region. They must be meticulous in giving their testimony and know that people look at them as a group that has a message that seeks peace and reconciliation.
“We must live that. We are in difficult conditions, but this isn’t the first time. The truth that we live is bigger than our circumstances. If we keep that in mind, then whatever happens, we won’t fear the future.”
- Pray for SAT-7 viewers in Syria. Ask God to strengthen and renew Syria’s Christians so that they are able to show love to all and be the salt that Syria needs.
- Pray God’s protection and guidance for those from non-Christian backgrounds who have come to Christ through the hospitality and witness of believers.
- Pray for an end to the remaining conflict in the north-west of Syria and for peace in the north-east where various foreign forces are deployed.
- Pray for physical and emotional healing for those affected by Syria’s war and for families separated by displacement.