Syria Relief Update - June 2015
A Tale of Three Cities
Tucked up into the far northeast corner of the country sharing borders with both Turkey and Iraq, the Hasakah Governate is one of 14 provinces in Syria. Rich in oil and grain production, it has been the stage for intense fighting between government forces and various opposition groups, including ISIS. It is also home to three Presbyterian congregations: Qamishli, Malikiya and Hasakah (city). The province is geographically isolated, as of late, because ISIS controls the main travel routes which connect it to the rest of the country. The National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon – The Outreach Foundation’s partner and main recipient of your generous gifts to the Syria Appeal – sent a delegation to meet with these churches in May. The delegation was composed of the Rev. Hadi Ghantous, pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Minyara, Lebanon; the Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, a Synod pastor who serves as The Outreach Foundation’s consultant for the region; and the Rev. Joseph Kassab, pictured below, who is the Synod’s Executive for Ecclesial and Spiritual Affairs. What follows is Rev. Kassab’s (slightly edited) report of that visit…
To our Outreach Foundation friends:
I want to update you on my last visit to northeast Syria. My memory of the trip is still fresh. Therefore, I pray that this report will be of help and allow you to be a part of the trip through these pages.
I had last been to northeast Syria, where the Synod serves three Presbyterian congregations (in Hasakah, Malikiya and Qamishli), in April of last year. Since the start of the crisis, there has been no way to reach that area by car, like we did before. So, Rev. Nuhad Tomeh, Rev. Hadi Ghantous and I left Lebanon and traveled north to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia where we booked a flight to Qamishli airport. The aircraft seated only 60 passengers and was so small we could not bring a suitcase on board but had to empty our necessary things into black plastic garbage bags to take them with us into the plane. (A small problem compared to the daily suffering of the Syrian people!!!)
Once we were in Qamishli we could not help but compare the situations between our two visits, April 2014 and May 2015. The spaces across the narrow streets are now filled with electric wires covering the sky and connecting each house and building to big generators. People were able, in one year, to create substitute electricity since the electricity coming from the government provides them with power only one to two hours daily. Obviously, it is a kind of adjustment; yet it is a costly one. They have to pay a double bill for the electricity – and this with their salaries having badly lost purchasing power.
As you know in February ISIS overran 35 Assyrian Christian villages in the region. So another variant we experienced during this visit was the displacement of approximately 5,000 Christian Assyrians from their villages and historic homeland. The Christian communities in Hasakah and Qamishli did not allow them to be left in tents or even church sanctuaries. Houses which were left behind by Christians who had fled the country were opened to these Assyrians to stay in with dignity and pride. We had the chance to visit the Assyrian bishop of the Jazirah area. He told us about the 200 Assyrians who are still captives in the hands of ISIS and the latest efforts for releasing them. The young bishop expressed his great gratitude to The Outreach Foundation for helping the Assyrian refugees in their distress [a $30,000 gift from Outreach to the local Presbyterian churches allowed them to supply over 900 displaced families with such things as heating oil, powdered milk, tuition assistance at the Christian school run by Hasakah church, and small cash grants].
The third variant that we touched closely was the Yazidi camp we visited near Malikiya. We were received by a Kurdish man who is responsible for outside camp relations. We passed through the many tents occupied by Yazidi refugees coming from the Sinjar (Iraqi area) from which they were violently displaced last summer along with thousands of Christians. The well of water, which was financed by The Outreach Foundation and installed by the Qamishli church, was quite a sign of hope and Christian love in the distant and isolated area where the camp is located.
Rev. Firas Farah, pictured left with his wife, is the pastor of Qamishli church. He is now the only Presbyterian pastor remaining in the Jazirah area so he also serves Hasakah and Malikiya. This requires that he spend a lot of time on often dangerous roads.
Despite the increasing difficulties, Firas is still convinced that there is no reason to leave and emigrate. He is preaching this from the pulpit and through his life-example among his people. His calm and tranquil personality spreads into the congregations as they seek the peace of Christ in their pastor before hoping for peace around them.
We worshiped on Sunday with the congregation in Qamishli, and I had the chance to preach about the martyrdom of Stephen. In a Muslim culture when people are taught slogans like "martyrdom or victory," Stephen teaches us how martyrdom itself is victory. After worship, we spent quality time with the congregation over a cup of coffee. Everyone expressed their thanks to the Synod and its partners for their support in praying and paying.
We left for Malikiya where we had lunch in the home of one of the elders. Then we moved to the church and were surprised with the number of people that filled that small church – more than 70 people. Over half of the attendants are not Presbyterians yet have always been a part of that community. There were many young people which brought joy to our hearts and revived our spirits. Their fervor in singing and praying reminded us of the importance of preserving the existence of the Church in that area. After worship, we spent time talking to people about their needs and fears, their concerns about security, safety and their children’s futures. Many families have emigrated, but many have stayed – most are wheat farmers.
Monday morning we headed to the church in Hasakah. Rev. Firas has become an expert in knowing the safest routes. There are many check points by the Kurdish militias and Syrian Army. Until now both are cooperating because both are facing the same threat of ISIS, which is not far from where the Kurds and the army have control. We had a meeting with the four elders who are sharing responsibilities with Rev. Firas for every detail of the church. Each one of them is taking turns preaching, since Rev. Firas cannot come every Sunday. Surprisingly, more activities are being held, and more people are attending the church compared with the time before the crisis! It was important for them that we visit the former pastor's house to see the damage from a rocket which hit during the latest clash between the Kurds and the Syrian army three months ago. We also visited the Assyrian bishop to hear details about the refugees and assistance received from The Outreach Foundation. Returning to the church, we had lunch with more than 60 people. A program was held for us that included singing and praying. Each one of us gave a short speech encouraging and assuring them that the Synod and partners in Christ like The Outreach Foundation are doing their best to ease their daily worries and difficulties. Although ISIS is not far from the church (maybe eight to nine miles), Christians are still in the city and practice a normal life. The church’s school continues to do its mission among its Muslim majority students. We were humbled by the spirit of the church.
Back in Qamishli that evening we attended a prayer meeting with 20 people, who poured their hearts and souls before the good Lord their sole rock and refuge. On the plane back home I was thinking: Will there be a next visit? Shall we meet the same people when we come back again? Who will stay? Who will leave? Are we doing enough to sustain those people? I prayed hard for Firas and his family. I also discovered that we can still count a lot of blessings in the midst of the suffering.
As I write today, I have to confess that without The Outreach Foundation and your special efforts we would be unable to continue doing mission for our people and our neighbors in the way Christ expects us to do. The significant gifts coming from The Outreach Foundation always come accompanied with love, respect, commitment and physical presence. May God Almighty bless you.
Your generous gifts for the Presbyterian Church in Syria at this critical time have totaled well over $560,000. 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 outreach and 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 fifth year. You may send gifts to our office or make an online gift by clicking HERE and selecting "Syria Relief" under Designation.