The people of God live in contrast to a world that is characterized by loneliness, isolation, and self-centeredness—at least that’s how one might think things work. Just as Christ loves his church, we Christians as his children are called to love one another, to live in harmony with one another, to forgive, encourage, and serve, to share with one another, and to give our lives for one another. Thus, in Christ’s love, we belong to one another in a profound way. We are called to be closely-knit communities through common faith and family.
After ten years of war, during which hatred and enmity have been destructive throughout society, the love of Christ, with its transforming power, will resolve conflicts and create an atmosphere of acceptance of those who are culturally and in faith “other.” Through our ministry, we address the hurts of the world. Through our witness, we testify to the Savior of the world and His goodness. And by being “salt and light,” we dare to make a difference in the present darkness.
God has always expected His Church to be an outpost of compassion, caring for the needs of others and giving of herself in service. When we engage in selfless service, we share in both the nature and the work of our Lord. We are called to bear witness. Jesus defined his task as “seeking and saving the lost.” He also commissioned his church to “go into all the world.”
The early church turned the world upside down with its powerful witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We should do no less. Syria’s Christian community is one of the oldest in the world, having existed for two millennia. My country is among those that play an important role in the Bible. Saul, who became the apostle Paul, was on his way to “my” capital Damascus, where there was already a church even then and still is today. Two thousand years ago, this church was so vibrant that the Jewish elders in Jerusalem wanted to put an end to it. They sent one of their most militant leaders toward Damascus, and we know what happened on that road to Damascus and how afraid the church was of this Saul. The church needed a divine intervention to send one of her people to meet Saul so that he would be healed and later become the “world evangelist”.
From this foiled attempt to persecute the church of Damascus, we can learn a few things: First, God cares about the Church! Second: God uses the members of the local church for change. And third, enemies filled with hate can experience the love and power of in order to change! Put more simply, are we doing all we can to live in peace with our spouse, our children, our parents, our relatives, our neighbors, and even our enemies? According to 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, as God‘s people, we are not only a new creation, but we are creating something new in this world through the ministry of reconciliation. We were commissioned to bring people together with God and with each other. We are chosen to be God’s peacemakers who reconcile those around us in love.
As Christians, we were and are an integral part of Syrian society. Until the beginning of the war, there were Christians in almost every city in the country. In their communities, they were probably more closely connected than people in most European countries. Since the churches often have a school, it is very likely that many parents sent their children to the Christian school. In this way, a larger percentage of the Christian population is connected to the church.
In the last ten years, the situation has changed dramatically. In some cities and towns there has been “ethnic cleansing”, which we Armenians sadly know about from our own history. In most cases, Christians were able to flee, leaving behind their possessions and saving only their own lives. A large number of Christians were kidnapped and held for months, which even made its way into western news. A large number are still being held hostage.
Today, thousands of people in Syria are struggling for their safety and livelihoods, and the number of aid recipients is increasing very rapidly as the war continues to devastate the Syrian economy. Most factories in Aleppo have been destroyed, severely damaged or looted. Their workers fled or took up arms. Unemployment and the permanent lack of access to healthcare, education, housing, and food have exacerbated the effects of the conflict and pushed millions of people into poverty. Daily income is not enough for subsistence. In addition, the Corona crisis and the sanctions imposed on Syria have affected peaceful civilians, resulting in business failures, mass unemployment, and the cessation of many normal activities. A tragic situation for a community that has been experiencing an extremely brutal war for many years.
In the midst of all these daily challenges, the church is still there, and it is still working. It doesn‘t only hold masses and other church services and invites people to meet Christ in a building. No, the Church in our country has had to go out to the people, as it has so many times in history. The Armenian and other Christian communities are caring about the needs of their members and their neighbors around them. The leaders of the Christian communities have done their utmost to make life prevail over death.
As leaders of the community, we are committed to the people we pastor, and that means we are shepherds. Shepherds cannot simply run away, especially when danger threatens. This is the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ: the shepherd is ready to lay down his life for his sheep! If we believe in His teaching during the good days, shouldn’t we follow it all the more when the hard times of trial come? “The Church is here!” That is the least we can do for Jesus, who laid down His life for us. As church leaders, we are called to turn everything into something good. Something that benefits the community.
Dedication is the key word today. We are committed to God first and then to our fellow human beings. Our hearts have been changed through a personal encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ. Once He has changed our hearts, other people, even the “Samaritan” who is not part of our family or group, become important to us. So important that we do everything we can for them as well.
We have seen so much destruction that it has almost numbed us. So often we have to tell our hearts not to harden and become insensitive to the situation and suffering that so many people are going through. I vividly remember the old lady who came to our door late in the night. Her house had been shot up. She had nowhere to go at that hour and said to herself, “The Church has always taken me in, and if she took me in before, she will take me in now, since I am really in need.” The Church must receive people at all times. We have schedules we need to stick to, but when the church has to be turned into an emergency reception center, then schedules become secondary. There is no running away from those in need. This is the time when we must act and be sensitive to people’s needs. A time when people decide what the Church should really be.
Our love must shine for all people. One of the last words of our Lord Jesus Christ was that we should love one another – so we had better start right away and dedicate our lives to serving others.
Finally, the church is called to be “salt and light,” to pass on Christ’s way of life through example, challenging and persistent teaching. Sometimes our contact with the world has little to do with bringing people to faith or alleviating needs, and much to do with making life in the world more bearable. Therefore, we should be signs of the hope and unity that comes from the presence of Christ in our world. That is why we are called to be disciples, that is why we are called to be Christians, to be the Church, to be signs of the one humanity that God created us to be. Together from all walks of life, from all tribes and nations, from denominations and continents.
The Bible is full of examples of how God called people to tasks for which they were uniquely gifted and qualified. Moses, who was educated and trained in Pharaoh’s court, was called to deliver God’s demand for the freedom of his people to Pharaoh. God called Joshua to lead the Israelites in conquering the Promised Land. David was called to be Israel’s king. Jonah was called to proclaim God’s judgment on non-believing Nineveh, while Amos was commissioned to proclaim doom on an unbelieving Israel. Paul was commissioned to call Gentiles to faith in Jesus, while Peter was sent to work among Jews. I believe that God has called us today, in this time of challenges, to help and support the Christians and non-Christians who are facing many difficulties in Syria. “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday..” (Isaiah 58:10).
May God bless us and our common witness to Christ in love, on the pilgrimage of justice and peace! We are called to bear witness.
By Haroutune Selimian for EMW Annual Report 2019/2020
About the Author
Haroutune Selimian is chairman of the Union of Evangelical Armenian Congregations in Syria and a pastor in Aleppo.