By Paul Seebeck, Presbyterians Today.
Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about them. About what they, the survivors of a brutal war in Syria, said when I first met them in 2014. “Tell everyone you know to stand with us against those who are profiting off war,” said one person. “We’d forgotten how to laugh,” said another. And the one that still mars my sleep: “I no longer allow myself to cry.”
Now, more than a year later, the death toll in Syria has risen beyond 200,000, more than half of them civilians, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the real number is likely much higher. The United Nations estimates that 7.6 million people have been displaced from their homes, forcing another 3.9 million to flee the country altogether. More than half of those refugees are children.
When I was there in 2014, the Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL, and other jihadi militant groups had just begun to take over large swaths of the country. Since then, IS—widely condemned by much of the Muslim world—has implemented a strict and ahistorical interpretation of Sharia law so extreme that even al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has disavowed IS. Public beheadings, crucifixions, and mass shootings have become common. Christians, Yazidis (who subscribe to a Kurdish form of dualism linked to Zoroastrianism), and Shia Muslims have been especially targeted for brutality.
So, today, new messages keep me up at night: “The fanatics are growing in number and power,” “We are losing it,” and “There’s nothing left to say; I’m out of words.”
I met them—my new friends from Lebanon and Syria—in March 2014 at the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut. Rob Bullock, the Presbyterian Foundation’s vice president for marketing and communications, and I were there to lead a communications seminar.
For one week, we worked with Syrian pastors, church leaders, professionals, and theology and medical students.
We were there to help them shape their stories, both for speaking with Presbyterian congregations in the United States and for communicating to a Western audience through social media channels. Together, we wanted to tell stories that weren’t being included in mainstream media, stories that would alter the narrative of what’s happening and break through the passivity of so many Westerners.
But as we listened to their stories, gradually we began to realize how much they were shaping us.
Their struggles of course struck a deep chord with us, but it was their faith that changed us.
Related article: PCUSA partner in Syria and Lebanon invites prayers, support