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Not Your Normal, Everyday Conference

originally published at ABTS Lebanon

Convent of Our Lady in Maaloula Lebanon
Maaloula, Lebanon

It was like every other Christian conference I’ve ever attended. It was like no other Christian conference I’ve ever attended.

We met at a hotel in Chataura (in Lebanon) about a thirty minute drive from the Syria-Lebanon border. All the attendees had crossed over from Damascus—Shem—as they call the Biblical son of Noah. I knew only a few of the conference leaders, but no one who had come from Syria. There were about 200 attendees—Arabic speakers, or more precisely, Arabic and Syriac speakers. It turns out that a number of the attendees are from Maaloula an ancient Christian enclave, retaining, until very recently the heritage of the Syriac church and speaking the very language that Jesus spoke—Aramaic, which due to Roman influence came to be known as Syriac.

It helped that I have been reading a lot recently on the ancient Syriac church. At least I had an inkling of the proud heritage they hold and how their church, though decimated by persecution and oppression remains as a testimony to a once vibrant and expanding body that dotted the landscape of the Middle East from Antioch to Baghdad and beyond. Maalula is a final outpost of the ancient Syrian faith. As a town, it is built into the side of a mountain which has provided refuge from past wars and waves of persecution.

Maaloula is proud of its ancient churches, monasteries and holy sites. You may know that the war in Syria has gutted the once-Christian enclave. Thirteen nuns were recently kidnapped under the occupation of Maaloula by the rebel forces led by the al-Nusra front—an al-Qaeda linked organization. Fortunately, the sisters were freed after three months. The people I met from Maaloula had been forced to leave their homes due to the mindless destruction and pillage. Many said their homes had been destroyed. They fled to Damascus. Although it wasn’t spoken of openly, I was told that several had died violent deaths as a result of their refusal to renounce their Christian faith.

Then there were the other Syrians who are from Damascus. I found many of them eager to talk about the war and the destruction it is wreaking on their nation. Several pointed out that when the bombings began, the streets were immediately deserted as everyone took cover. At present, the recurrent mortar fire is so common that hardly anyone reacts. Yet people are dying daily. One lady approached me and tearfully told me her story. Her son had been taken into custody a few months into the conflict. Only weeks later, she received his death certificate. She has one other son who will soon become old enough for compulsory military service. She pleaded with me to help her get him out of Syria. “He’s all I have left and I know they will kill him too.”

Another participant shared with me that Damascus is filling up with internal refugees. They have fled there from Homs, Aleppo and other devastated cities. With the internal displacement it is difficult to know who is a combatant and even who is the enemy.

In between these conversations, we were enjoying a conference complete with vivacious worship music, passionate teaching and seminars discussing the challenges of Christian marriage and living as a Christian in a chaotic society. It was a Christian conference…like many others and yet so very different.

Other less dramatic expressions of suffering were shared during the conference. For instance, many of the young women are watching the window of opportunity for marriage slowly close. The men are dying or fleeing. No one is prepared to take on the responsibility of marriage in a society that is self-destructing.

Medical emergencies abound. Many requested prayer for healing. Two young men who are studying medicine informed me that the most advanced medical equipment has been confiscated or ransacked by combatants. They bemoaned the fact that the top-rate medical clinics in their country can no longer boast world-class quality. The war has impacted every sector.

Once a week they gather at the church to pray for those who have disappeared. Some have been taken hostage, kidnapped, co-opted by the fighting forces. Some will never be seen again. Yet they pray.

What’s the point? First, I was confronted with the fact that I need to care. Seeing the devastation on a computer or television screen is horrific, but also numbing. Hearing the real-life experiences of brothers and sisters in Syria is a wake-up call. Knowing that as I write this from my safe apartment in Beirut they are back in homes that are vulnerable to mortar fire urges me to pray and follow the developments just a little more closely, and to share the burden with the readers of this blog.

Do we care? I know, I know…what can we do?

Truth is, I had become just a bit cynical about the war…over there. I’m not particularly pleased with my home country’s policy toward the war. In fact, I had come to believe there’s probably no good end to this war. Meeting Mounir and Layla and Elias and Abd al-Karim and the other 200 Jesus-followers at this conference reminded me that any end to this war will be a good outcome.

I was also faced with another reality. Though I may be cynical, my brothers and sisters there are 100% invested in their homeland. Over and over, I heard them say “we are not leaving.” The conference hall pulsated with the pleading voices of Syrians as they sang “baarik Suriya” (bless Syria). Picture a room full of war-weary worshippers calling out to God with tears as they lift their hands and voices in song.

No matter how dark the land, the sky is filled with light.
Just as Nehemiah came to you weeping, pleading,
So we come lifting our voices, O Jesus stretch forth your hand!
Baarik Suriya. Baarik Suriya,
You who hear the heart prayers of all people
Turn to us and hear our cry.

Wherever you are at this moment, remember that your brothers and sisters are there. Whatever your comfort level today, remember that they are exposed to death and injury this day. Whatever your political persuasion or perception of the Syrian war, remember you’re related to people there through the family of God.

One last thing... For me, it was important to meet with brothers and sisters in Christ experiencing the trauma of the Syrian war. However, I was constantly reminded that they see the church as the great hope for peace and reconciliation for all Syrians—Muslims, Christians, Druze and any others. Sounds like a church with a mission. They reminded me that even if there were no “brothers and sisters in Christ” there, there are still “brothers and sisters in humanity.” The mindless killing impacts all. That is motivation aplenty to be concerned about the war in Syria.

I told them I would ask my brothers and sisters in other countries to pray for them. It seemed to give them hope. So would you…just take a moment? Pray for Syria today.

Bless Syria.

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