(Photo: REUTERS/Khaled al Hariri)
A number of Christians in Syria are deciding to stay behind and heed what they say is God's call to reach out to their Muslim neighbors despite the violent attacks against them, persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA has shared.
"There are some Christians who are fleeing because they have no other choice, but there are many Christians who have really felt God's call to stay in town, even though they have been attacked and targeted because of their faith. They realize that God's using them, and (are reaching) out to their Muslim neighbors," Emily Fuentes, PR and Communications Coordinator at Open Doors USA, shared with The Christian Post in a phone interview on Friday.
Several reports have noted that the two-and-a-half-year civil war in Syria, which has caused over 100,000 deaths and forced over 2 million people to flee the country, is also bringing increased persecution for Christians as the Islamic extremists gain influence.
"The Christian community in Syria is stuck between two fires," said Nadim Nassar, a Syrian from Latakia who is director of the Awareness Foundation, a U.K.-based interfaith charity, according to The Washington Post. "One fire is a corrupt regime, and everybody agrees there needs to be a change. And on the other hand, there's a fragmented and diverse opposition on the ground who can't control jihadist forces coming from outside the country."
Missionary groups and relief organizations are working with the millions of refugees fleeing Syria and flowing into neighboring countries, but much of the country's Christian population, making up 10 percent out of 23 million, is choosing to stay behind. With a chaotic political situation all around them, they have received little protection from extremist attacks, however.
Fuentes explained to CP that Christians are now being targeted specifically for their faith, and are not simply casualties of the general violence that has gripped Syria's cities.
"Christian churches are being attacked in different parts of the cities by the Muslim extremists in the rebel groups," she said.
"There has been looting, physical attacks, there has been kidnapping and just a bunch of difficult and horrific things; parts of towns being bombed and attacked because they are Christian."
While much has been written about the struggle between President Bashar al-Assad, accused by the U.S. and other major countries of using chemical weapons on his own people, and the various rebel factions, some which reportedly have ties to al-Qaida, Syria's church leaders are not trying to get involved politically, Open Doors revealed.
Fuentes noted that the watchdog group is working with church partners on the ground and is helping provide food supplies, medical and hygiene products, and other financial support that helps pay for apartments and temporary shelters for the homeless. Of the church leaders Open Doors has spoken to, many are trying not to make political statements, as there are "horrible things" coming from both sides in the conflict.
"Christians have different political views – so what they are asking for is prayer and that God can provide the right solution. Only God can heal Syria," Fuentes said.
She added that one of the churches in Syria that opened up as a relief aid agency for Christians and their neighbors, providing food, clothing, as well as sermons, has seen a number of people come to Christ within its walls.
Fuentes shared of one instance when a man looking like a Muslim extremist came to the church's doorstep, which initially caused alarm. "The concern was that he might be there to attack them. The church leaders were nervous, but couldn't turn him away, and let him in.
"They kept an eye on him but let him in and offered him a meal, and he listened to a sermon, and at the end of this, this man who was an extremist gave his life to Christ – and so those churches have seen amazing miracles like this happen, and feel that God is calling them in this way."
Fuentes concluded that people who want to help can turn to donation programs, but prayer is the main thing that Syrian Christians are asking for.
"They know that's the only thing that can truly change the course of history and what's happening in Syria."