Syria Appeal - May 2017

Too Close for Comfort?

I live in Atlanta and, like most Americans who spend a lot of time in their cars, I am well aware of how long it takes to drive to other cities where I sometimes go for work or even vacation: it is about a four-hour drive, north and west, to get to Nashville; in the other direction, it is about four hours east and south to get to historic Savannah. I was recently in Hasakeh, Syria, where that “four hours away” analysis recalled an unsettling reality: four hours to the west was Raqqa, the self-proclaimed “capital” of ISIS in Syria; four hours to the east was Mosul where, even now, the Iraqi army is attempting to drive out ISIS from the city they had hoped would be their “capital” in Iraq. Connecting Raqqa and Mosul is a swath of fertile farmland where, in the middle, stands the city of Hasakeh, smack dab in the center of the area which was targeted to be the “heartland” of a new ISIS caliphate. 

If you were a Christian living in Hasakeh, and in such proximity to danger, would you be “too close for comfort”?

 Mathilde Sabbagh with Elders Issam and Nizar at Hasakeh Church

Mathilde Sabbagh with Elders Issam and Nizar at Hasakeh Church

The answer to that question came, inspiringly, in the form of the National Evangelical [Presbyterian] Church there, where my husband Mark and I, in the company of the Rev. Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, had come to observe Good Friday. It is one of the 18 Presbyterian churches in Syria – which are led by eight pastors and two recent graduates of the Near East School of Theology who are on their way to ordination. One of those recent graduates is serving here in Hasakeh…a place where 70% of the Christians have left because of the danger. And this particular graduate happens to be a young woman, Mathilde Sabbagh, pictured here with Elders Issam and Nizar. Mathilde’s brother, Yacoub, is already an ordained pastor serving in Fairouzeh, Syria. Together, Yacoub and Mathilde make up 1/5 of the Presbyterian pastoral leadership in Syria – the Sabbagh family has been graced with some faith-filled genes! 

 My sweet reunion with Nadia

My sweet reunion with Nadia

I was reunited with a half dozen women whom I have gotten to know via a synod women’s conference held in Lebanon each summer. Through our hugs and kisses we were all incredulous (and grateful) that God made a path for me to finally venture to this remote corner of Syria! 

60 minutes due north of Hasakeh is the city of Qamishli, close by the Turkish border. Rev. Firas Ferah, the only ordained Presbyterian pastor in far northeast Syria (an area referred to as al-Jizeera, “the peninsula”), resides here with his wife and two sons in a flat adjacent to the church. He oversees Mathilde and the Hasakeh congregation, where he goes regularly to conduct funerals and weddings and to preside over the sacraments – but has less pastoral work there now that Mathilde has come home. Qamishli is his “base” congregation, and we were blessed to worship with them on Easter when the joyful voices of the children rang out:

Every move I make, I make in You
You make me move, Jesus
Every breath I take, I breathe in You
Every step I take, I take in You
You are my way, Jesus
Every breath I take, I breathe in You.

Waves of mercy, waves of grace
Everywhere I look, I see your face
Your love has captured me
Oh my God, this love
How can it be?

 At Qamishli Church, the future looks bright.

At Qamishli Church, the future looks bright.

As we gathered outside after worship to enjoy the sunshine and take a group photo with the congregation, a sobering image caught my eye: a small military vehicle was parked in the front of the church, a soldier “manning” a machine gun. Four other soldiers completed this contingent which had been sent to guard the church from a terrorist attack. I knew that just last year, a deadly bombing had targeted this largely Christian area, and a nearby café run by a church member had been badly damaged. Even though a majority of the residents had left, he rebuilt as a sign of defiance. We ate there several times and only saw two other customers dining. I was quickly distracted by the “normalcy” of families dressed up for Easter and joyfully posing for pictures – with their kids, alongside the pastor and his family, and with us, the “relatives” from far away. But it was the youth here that deeply moved me – their faces full of hope despite their uncertain future; their faith generating an almost visible light despite the unsettling darkness which pervades their homeland. 

If you were a Christian living in Hasakeh, and in such proximity to danger, would you be “too close for comfort”?

 Rev. Joseph Kassab, Mark Borst and Rev. Firas Ferah

Rev. Joseph Kassab, Mark Borst and Rev. Firas Ferah

Our trip into northeast Syria had to include the town of Malkieh where the third Presbyterian Church is found. Without a pastor for many years, and located so far up into the tip of the country that a “Welcome to Iraq” message popped up on my phone from a close-by cell service, Rev. Firas makes the 90-minute journey several times during the week to lead worship and ministries and to moderate the session. Before the Maundy Thursday service in this humble little sanctuary began, we had lunch with some of the elders. We learned how the town was founded by those fleeing the genocides in Turkey at the beginning of the last century and about a Syrian Orthodox priest who became a Protestant through the influence of Presbyterian missionaries who came to the area. This man, Hanna Eliya, would found a large family, as well (in fact, many of the current members of the church trace their lineage to him). One of the elders, Wadiya Eliya, showed us a small, old notebook full of hymn texts written out by Hanna for his congregation in pre-Ataturk Turkish. He had hand copied about thirty of these and this was the only one which remained.

If you were a Christian living in Malkieh, and in such proximity to danger, would you be “too close for comfort”?

Hasakeh, Qamishli and Malkieh, by western standards, seem like pretty scary places. But I continually find in these Presbyterians of Syria a spirit of joy, a clarity about God’s purpose in their continuing presence, and a confidence in God’s care and protection. The 16th century Heidelberg Catechism, a foundational document of our Reformed faith, begins with this fundamental question: What is your only comfort in life and death? It then gives an answer which is lived large among these faithful witnesses to Christ in Syria today: That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ…

 Elder Riad and his family, Qamishli

Elder Riad and his family, Qamishli

Hasakeh, Qamishli and Malkieh: “too close for comfort”? I hardly think so.

Grace and peace,
Marilyn Borst, Associate Director for Partnership Development

We thank God that you continue this journey with us alongside the faithful, witnessing Church in Syria until peace is restored. You may send an additional gift – which supports families IN the churches and the ministries OF the churches – to our office or make an online gift by clicking HERE. Please designate your gift for the “Syria Appeal.” 

 A glorious group shot with the Malkieh congregation

A glorious group shot with the Malkieh congregation