Syria Relief Update - December 2014

And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…  Ephesians 4:11-12

Syria

Dear Partners in Christ’s mission,

The Outreach Foundation team visits with Dr. George Sabra (bottom  row, 2nd from left), President of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut

The Outreach Foundation team visits with Dr. George Sabra (bottom  row, 2nd from left), President of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut

I have just returned from leading another mission-vision trip to the Middle East. Twelve pastors, elders and mission leaders from Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Georgia and California spent a week in Lebanon with me and with The Outreach Foundation’s consultant Rev. Nuhad Tomeh learning of the work and witness of fellow-Presbyterians there (through the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, Near East School of Theology and the National Evangelical Church of Beirut). Seven of those travelers continued on into Syria where we worshipped, wept and celebrated God’s faithfulness in five Presbyterian churches there (Homs, Fairouzeh, Amr Hosn, Yazdia and Lattakia). On those visits, we were struck by the number of beautiful, bright and spiritually mature young adults we met in those churches – a reminder that, even for Christians in the midst of war, God has, for them, “a plan and a future.”

Yacoub and Mathild Sabbagh in 2009

Yacoub and Mathild Sabbagh in 2009

As this was my 14th trip to Syria in about eighteen years, I have had the delight to actually watch some of these young people grow into a call to ministry, as was the case with Yacoub (Jacob) Sabbagh, and his sister, Mathild, whom I first met in 2009 when they were participating in a summer church conference in the Syrian mountain town of Mashta Helou, not far from the Lebanese border. Yacoub had just finished his theological studies at the Near East School of Theology (NEST) in Beirut and was awaiting his first call. His adoring “little sister,” Mathild, was still in university and planning to follow her brother to seminary. I was drawn to their exuberant, joyful demeanor and their great affection for each other. Little did any of us know that, in less than two year, Syria would be plunged into war, and Yacoub would be barely in his first pulpit when, while having to navigate the dangerous roads to make a pastoral call on a dying elder, he would be kidnapped and told to recant his faith (thankfully, he was released, unharmed).

I have met up with this brother and sister over these past years, but their current testimony and context is worth sharing for, what I pray will be, an encouragement to all of us to continue to walk alongside, pray for and support the Presbyterian Church in Syria even as our morning news seems to present few signs of hope in that precarious and ravaged place.

Mathild with NEST's Dr. George Sabra

Mathild with NEST's Dr. George Sabra

Mathild is 25 and in her second of three years at NEST. This past summer, she was planning to return to her home church in Hasakeh, in far eastern Syria, for a summer internship. The church had been without a pastor for many months and was eager for “one of their own” to take the leadership in ministry for a few months. But right before departing, ISIS infiltrated parts of the city, and a cousin of Mathild’s was murdered in his government office – his throat slit in the sign of a cross. The church elders forbid her to come, but since that time she has been “pastoring remotely,” sending sermons to her uncle, an elder, and Bible study lessons to the women’s group. With most of her extended family in Canada, she has been urged to immigrate to the West, but, she shared, “God has not given me a word to speak in Canada…he has given me a word for Syria.” I asked her to gauge her sense of hope for Syria at this moment in time: “My hope is more in the Church than in the country. If ten people remain, the Presbyterian Church will find its way, even if we have only one church remaining. Not everyone can leave so we will still have people who need a pastor. And we believe that after each crucifixion, there comes a resurrection…” 

Rev. Yacoub and his mother, Wafa

Rev. Yacoub and his mother, Wafa

At 32, Yacoub is now pastoring the Presbyterian Church in Fairouzeh on the outskirts of Homs, one of the cities hardest hit by the fighting in Syria. Newly married to Grace, he asked his mother, Wafa, to come and live with them until the situation in Hasakeh is more stable. As we met with his congregation in the gathering gloom of a rainy Sunday evening, an impromptu worship service evolved, during which we sang, read Scripture and prayed, and, as he shared an overview of his congregation and its life of ministry – such as a vibrant Sunday School of over 200 – Rev. Yacoub insisted that the “power of the Kingdom is still operative. The glimpses Christ gave of the Kingdom include repentance, the assurance of healing as well as the call to put at the service of that Kingdom what we have and who we are, and God will use it to his glory. For example, as we visit [those whose lives have been devastated by the war], we cry with them, because sometimes our tears are all we have to offer.”

Yacoub and Mathild are a tribute to the strong and vibrant church of Hasakeh in which they had been nurtured in their faith – I learned on this trip that their beloved father, who had died unexpectedly three years ago, had been the founder of that church and the Christian school which is run by the church in Hasakeh and currently has over 700 students, half of them Muslim. They radiate a hope and a future for Syria, committed as they are to Christ’s call to ministry and confident of his providential care and protection for his Church.

A warm welcome from the Presbyterians in Fairouzeh, Syria

A warm welcome from the Presbyterians in Fairouzeh, Syria

Your generous gifts for the Presbyterian Church in Syria, at this critical time, have totaled over $380,000. These funds have been used by the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon and their partners to provide direct aid, such as food and clothing, housing, and educational support for children. Some resources have been used to strengthen the Synod’s pastoral and psychological care to those who have been displaced and to assist in the theological education of those preparing to lead the church in the years ahead. More resources are needed as the fighting is now marking its fourth year. You may send an additional gift to our office or make an online gift by choosing Syria Appeal under the Give button. Please designate your gift for the “Syria Appeal.” You can find a downloadable bulletin insert on our website along with earlier updates.

In Advent joy,

Marilyn Borst, Associate Director for Partnership Development

Rev. Salam Hanna, another Presbyterian pastor in Syria, visiting the Church in Hasakeh which was founded and built by Yacoub and Mathild's father

Rev. Salam Hanna, another Presbyterian pastor in Syria, visiting the Church in Hasakeh which was founded and built by Yacoub and Mathild's father