There's No Place Like Homs!
For the Team, Ed Hurley
Late Tuesday afternoon saw our Outreach team to Syria and Lebanon traveling into the massively war devastated city of Homs. As we approached this metropolitan area and provincial capital, previously with a population of 1.2 million, we saw, more commonly than not, block after block of bomb-shattered five to seven story buildings, tightly built areas, with their upper floors open to the air or crumbled in a heap. Exterior walls were often knocked down, as if skin ripped off a human body, revealing ruins of interior rooms where once families lived and small businesses operated. I tried to imagine my own city of Birmingham, Alabama with a similar size population and the mile after mile of ruin. Military checkpoints are every few blocks. Sunday I had used Lamentations 3 as the first Scripture reading in the worship service in Latakia; now I was seeing the sort of area of which the prophet Jeremiah cried, “I have been deprived of peace. I have forgotten what prosperity is.” (Lamentations 3:17).
Our very first stop, however, brought us early on to the turning point in that passage, “Yet this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed.” (3:21). For we had arrived at the Presbyterian Church of Homs. There we were greeted by the young pastor Rev. Mofid Karajili and his beautiful wife, Micheline, and welcomed to the weekly meeting of the women's fellowship. Some 40 women of all ages came for singing, scripture reading and a meditation, given today by Marilyn Borst on Paul's opening words to the church at Rome, “I thank God through Jesus Christ for all of you because your faith is being reported all over the world. I long to see you.” These enthusiastic women were able to come to the church midweek, and obviously eager to come, thanks to transportation that The Outreach Foundation helped provide.
This church building was occupied by rebel terrorists for over two years. Pastor Mofid conducted one service on arrival at his new congregation in January, 2012, before they were forced to evacuate to a temporary meeting space in the elderly home that the church owns in a different area. But now, less than two years since the siege of Homs was relieved in 2014, the congregation has regained and repaired their church. After the service we enjoyed refreshments and an evening in the church residence apartment of Pastor Mofid and Micheline and met their 10-year old son Samir, who was preparing for school exams the next morning at the historic and excellent elementary and secondary school run by the church since the mid 19th century.
Wednesday in Homs was as full as a day can be, beginning with a visit to the ancient Mar (Saint) Elian Greek Orthodox Church, dating from the fifth century. Abuna (Father) Antonius greeted us and told the story of the third century saint who inspired the building and ongoing ministry of the church, visiting his tomb behind the iconostasis (screen separating the sanctuary and main part of the church on which icons are placed). This church sustained some damage in the recent crisis, but the structure remains intact and repairs are ongoing, especially where frescoes had been burned. Terrorists however desecrated the cemetery outside, knocking over crosses from tombs wherever they could. Some few crosses, prophetically, together with the cross high atop the steeple could not be knocked down. “Lift high the cross!” which is exactly what we saw the Christian community of Homs doing.
We then visited the Grand Mosque, a large historic worship space where peaceful Muslims have gathered for prayer for centuries. This, too, was damaged by terrorists. The mosque is adjacent to the main old city shopping area, or souq. The roof is currently being rebuilt, and one of every five shops is reopened. I stopped in a candy shop filled with Muslim women in full coverings. The proprietor warmly greeted me and thrust into my hands pieces of homemade taffy, inscribed salam, peace.
Our next stop was a home in Homs, the apartment of Presbyterian Church members Jabra and Salam Nusry and their daughter Nour, a student at the university. This family was forced from their apartment by the bombing for over three years, during which the radicals who occupied the building knocked a large hole in their living room floor and burned the furniture to heat the place. This family was determined to return and rebuild. Jabra is a dental denture and crown maker, and he was able to continue working to support the family. Salam would come daily to the ruined apartment and largely single-handedly replastered walls, retiled floors, and restored and rebuilt windows and door frames. We were treated to Turkish coffee and Syrian sweets. As Salam told us, “I want to thank God for the blessing He gave us. Always I had the hope not to let despair come into my life. Sometimes I would go out and pray that we will one day be back in our home.”
Theirs is one of 39 homes the Presbyterian Church of Homs worked to rebuild, helped by grants from PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance) and The Outreach Foundation. Another 26 homes of church members remain to be restored. The Nusry family is once again settled into their home in Homs after being exiled for over three years.
Our next visit was to the office of the governor of Homs district, His Excellency Talal al Barazi. His is a presidential appointment though he is not a politician, nor a member of President Assad's political party, but a statistical planner and real estate developer who was called back home from the Gulf and private industry to help rebuild Homs.
We were warmly welcomed and ushered into a large conference room where the governor explained something of the war and rebuilding. Over 14,000 residents of Homs region have been killed. Over 80% of the population has fled or been killed. Now, slowly, rebuilding is going on. Of 36 neighborhoods comprising Homs, 35 are controlled again by the government while one is still in rebel hands. The governor invited us to his residence the next evening, but since our schedule had us leaving Homs the next morning he and his wife graciously accepted our invitation to join us for dinner tonight at Julia's, an historic restaurant also victim of bombing and now restored after two years. We are well tonight and also this afternoon!
Lunch was at the Home for the Elderly operated by the Presbyterian Church of Homs in a joint agreement with the Roman Catholics whose order of nuns, led by exuberant bright-eyed Sister Valentin, cares for 43 elderly residents. She herself probably qualifies age-wise, but she is too busy caring for the others and visitors like us. This home also endured the occupation, as it was directly on the line between rebels and the army. Damage was sustained here, but under vast hardship the facility remained open with the elderly being cared for. They lose money each month and are in desperate need of resources, but they believe God has called them here to this work, and God has and will provide.
Our final visit in early evening was back at the Presbyterian Church of Homs where elders and church leaders and many eager youth and young adults met with us, one of whom is a young medical doctor who feels called to ministry and will begin theological studies at Outreach partner NEST (Near East School of Theology) in Beirut next month. These leaders shared their impressive ministries ongoing for all ages, from home rebuilding and direct assistance with food baskets and other gifts to the displaced, to ministries for children, youth and adults and at the heart of it all, weekly worship of the living loving God.
After a full day we saw that truly God is at work in his people in Homs. “There's no place like Homs!” We were made to feel at home In Homs. “Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)
Rev. Dr. Ed Hurley
South Highland Presbyterian Church, Birmingham Alabama