Israel’s Troubled Neighbor Syria
The Road to Damascus
The Middle East is teetering on the brink of total chaos. Country after country has erupted into revolution or outright civil war. While younger people seeking economic and employment opportunities started much of the early dissent, Islamist terrorist groups exploited it in order to topple existing regimes in favor of more Islamist governments.
Caught in the crossfire are the Christian communities of the region. The jihadist/Islamist groups are taking their anger out on the vulnerable Christians, attempting to subjugate them and even drive them out. Nuns have been paraded in the street as spoils of war, and churches, orphanages and Christian businesses destroyed. In Egypt alone, over 100 churches were burned in one month.
Israel is quietly watching with concern as her neighborhood is increasingly unstable.
In July the Egyptian military responded to the outcry of the people, removing President Morsi from power and then outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood. They began clearing out the Sinai, where various jihadist and Islamist terrorist groups had been allowed to establish themselves, shut down the border with the Gaza Strip and destroyed all of the tunnels that connected Hamas ruled Gaza to Egypt.
The terrorist presence in Sinai was not just a threat to Egypt but also Israel and the whole of the Middle East so these developments are very positive for Israel and may result in the continuation of the peace – albeit a cold one – that she has shared with Egypt for over 30 years.
The Christians in Egypt are thankful for the new government which has just banned 55,000 Islamic clerics unless they obtain a license from the non-Muslim Brotherhood Islamic authorities at Al-Azhar University. The interim government is also allowing churches to be repaired and has even issued permits for new churches to be built – something that had not been allowed for centuries.
They also cleared out areas in the South of Egypt where Islamists were still in control and persecuting Christians. One whole village of 15,000 Christians had been given the choice to either convert to Islam or pay the high Islamic tax called the Jizya. This tax is based on a Quranic verse and was used historically to subjugate non-Muslims who refused to convert to Islam.
Currently, all eyes are on Syria. The Sunni Muslim majority country has been ruled by the Alawite Assad family since 1970. The Alawites are a secretive branch of Shi’ite Islam which was highly persecuted by the Sunnis throughout the centuries and today makes up about 12% of Syria.
Another 10% of Syrians are Christians, most of them of Eastern Orthodox tradition, and they have had relative peace under the Alawite government due to the ruling sect’s own minority status. This does not mean President Assad is a nice guy. On the contrary, he rules with an iron fist and the Alawites have remained in power by ruthlessly putting down dissent.
The current civil war started when schoolboys painted anti-regime graffiti on a wall and were arrested, interrogated and tortured. Their families gathered in protest and Syrian security forces opened fire on them beginning an uprising that grew into the current bloody civil war. The opposition forces have been infiltrated and in many cases lead by jihadist/Islamist groups taking advantage of the situation and attempting to take over the country.
Estimates are that 100,000 people have been killed in this civil war, at least 1,400 of them due to sarin gas attacks and while two million are in exile another four million are displaced inside Syria. Many churches have been damaged and there are reports of deliberate Islamist attacks on Christian villages and residents. As early as October 2012 the last Christian in the city of Homs – which had a Christian population of some 80,000 before the jihadis came – was murdered.
The controversy over American intervention in this situation is that there are no good guys to side with. An attack on the government’s forces will only strengthen the Islamists and practically insure their victory. The Christians prefer the government of President Assad because he allowed them to live in peace. They are doubtful the Islamists will even let them live.
The Road To Damascus
Christianity spread to Syria early on through the ministry of the Apostle Peter. Many Christians lived in Damascus which is why Saul of Tarsus was headed there to persecute them when he had his Damascus Road conversion and later became known as the Apostle Paul. Syria was predominantly Christian until the invasion of Muslim armies in the 7th century. Some Syrian Christians still speak Aramaic which was the language of Jesus.
Damascus is one of the longest continuously inhabited cities on earth, yet Isaiah 17:1 contains a “burden (prophecy) against Damascus” in which Isaiah declares that Damascus will one day cease from being a city. While this verse seemed a distant one just a few years back, one can sense just how quickly it could be fulfilled under current circumstances. A US or Western strike on Syria could easily result in retaliatory attacks on Israel, Russian involvement and a war of devastating proportions.
Hearts should break over the human toll and suffering this conflict has and could still potentially cause. All the peoples of the Middle East – Jew, Christian and Muslim – are, in one way or another, victims of the spiritual stronghold over the region that causes hatred, violence and death. There needs to be much prayer for the protection of Israel and the Christians, but also for the gospel to go forth throughout the region. We know that God loves all the peoples of the Middle East as they are part of the “world” He loved and sent His son to die for (John 3:16). A “Damascus Road” revelation of the Prince of Peace is their only hope.
Praying As Watchmen On The Walls
What many in the West do not understand is that the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, was predominantly Christian before the Islamic forces invaded in the 7th century. A thousand years ago there were still more Christians in the Middle East than in Europe. Even a century ago, more than 20% of the region’s population was Christian.
Today, estimates put the Christian population of the region at 5% and likely to become extinct if Islamist forces continue to gain power. The second largest Christian community in the Middle East, after the Copts of Egypt, is the Syrian Christians. They are now dispersed, many are homeless refugees, and will never regain their community’s size and strength.
Isaiah 17 – 19 describes a time of coming devastation and destruction in the region from Egypt to Assyria but then the prophet foretells of a great revival that will come to the area. He predicts a time in which the peoples of the region know the Lord and are joined together with Israel along a highway from Egypt to Assyria. The people will live in peace and the Lord will be worshiped throughout Egypt, Israel and Assyria (Isaiah 19:18-25).
In the meantime, there is a great spiritual battle brewing over the entire Middle East. The same forces that want to destroy Israel are attempting to destroy Christian communities in their reach. They need our prayers and Isaiah 62:6-7 describes the type of prayer that is required in these days.
“O Jerusalem, I have posted watchmen on your walls; they will pray day and night, continually. Take no rest, all you who pray to the LORD. Give the LORD no rest until he completes his work, until he makes Jerusalem the pride of the earth.”
Our prayers are to be vigilant, as ancient watchmen guarding the people of the city under attack, as well as persistent, crying out night and day, and ever hopeful knowing that the battle is the Lord’s. But until that glorious day when His work is complete and the Prince of Peace reigns from Jerusalem, there is much to pray about.
Susan Michael is the director of the US Branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem