Here are some of the harsh facts of the bloody civil war raging in Syria for almost two years:
• The United Nations reported in early January that more than 60,000 people have been killed in the conflict, including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad troops, the Free Syria Army (rebel forces) and innocent civilians. One rebel agency says that total includes more than 3,500 children, but that is not confirmed by the U.N.
• As of Jan. 2, more than 1.2 million Syrians have been displaced within the country, according to the U.N.
• The U.N. High Commission for Refugees reports approximately 700,000 Syrians have fled the country into places such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. The pace of those leaving has increased rapidly. The Associated Press reported last week a wave of 21,000 Syrians moved into already crowded, often dangerous camps in northern Jordan.
• Four million Syrians inside the country need food, shelter and other aid, according to the U.N.
But how about the faces behind these statistics? The grief, the tears, the broken hearts of those who are mourning dead, missing or fleeing family members. And physically, the lack of food, shelter and clothing in the cold weather of winter, both inside Syria and in the refugee camps outside the country. Yes, another "Arab Winter," both literally and figuratively.
Pastor Ouseph (not his real name) from Damascus has a hole in each of his church suits. It's the result of a bullet going through the house when the family wasn't home. Since the civil war started in Syria, life in the country has become increasingly difficult. There is danger all around from both sides. Also, due to the international boycott of the country, there are food shortages, high prices, electricity cuts and a lack of gasoline.
The Christians, who make up approximately 10 percent of the population of Syria, face extra difficulties, being the target of specific threats such as kidnappings, as well as suffering repercussions from Islamic extremists for allegedly supporting President Assad. He gave Christians a degree of freedom to worship under his regime.
Although Syria has a Christian history, some Islamic Syrians tell Christian Syrians to "go back to their own country." In their view, Christians belong to the western world. Over 10,000 Christian families have fled from their homes, according to Open Doors, an international Christian ministry which supports persecuted believers. Some neighborhoods are soon taken over by Salafists (radical Islamists) who rule in Homs and parts of Aleppo with the extreme guidelines of Sharia Law. Pastor Ouseph says he sees people walking around without hands, probably because they have stolen something. Under Sharia Law, that's usually the penalty for theft.
With the sounds of war going on around their home, Pastor Ouseph tucks his two young girls into bed every night, preparing them for what could happen: "If a bomb explodes, you might see a lot of blood, and it might hurt a little, but if we die, we will close our eyes here and reopen them in heaven," he tells them.
His children check the bins of their schools for bombs every morning before they go into class. Ouseph's wife Hanna says, "God has saved us many times by showing us the location of bombs so they could be disarmed."
The Christians get little support from inside or outside the country. But even in the midst of chaos, the pastor sees the blessings God gives them: "If there is no earthly thing to trust in, you have to trust in God and this is what He teaches us to do through this difficult situation."
Even in this time of death and destruction, the church of Pastor Ouseph has been a refuge for Christians and non-Christians. Women whose husbands have left to fight in the war have come to the church to hear the gospel.
Homs, a city which had a major Christian community, has been obliterated by bombings over the past two years, causing most of the believers to flee to other Christian communities inside Syria or to refugee camps outside of the country. Ouseph's church has been praying fervently for the Christians in Homs. God answered their prayers, but not in the way the believers expected.
"We have been praying and fasting for a church of our denomination to open in Homs for many years," he explains. "But God had other plans: he sent the people of Homs to our church and the revival is happening right here. They renewed their faith in the midst of this crisis."
Those who have fled their homes have lost everything – their sources of income, schooling for their children and medical help. Open Doors is partnering with churches in Syria and is helping to strengthen them in order to survive, praying that this will encourage Christians to stay in the country.
"It's important the church stays in Syria," Hanna stresses. "If the church leaves Syria, Syria will be spiritually destroyed."
The faith of the Syrian Christians is strong. Pastor Ouseph and his family have stopped watching television because in their opinion, the broadcasters only share lies. Instead they turn to God every morning to guide them through the day and to provide them with the things they need to know. People in their church follow their example. The believers get their news from heaven and it gives them the peace and strength to carry on with their lives.
"God has saved us so far, so we are still needed," Ouseph says. "If we keep praying, God will do something incredible. This is what we all feel."
Pastor Ouseph's faith is strong. But he needs the prayers of his brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. Will you pray for Pastor Ouseph, his family and his faithful congregation today? And lift up in prayer all the thousands of Syrian Christians who are keeping their faith in the midst of both severe persecution and horrible living conditions? Pray that the situation in Syria will change for the better soon, for all the refugees, for the traumatized and for the children who want to go to school but can't. Pray also for relief workers to safely bring in supplies, the Word of God and hope for a better future.