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Church in Syria Helps Displaced Find New Life

July 28, 2016

Syrian Refugee encampment.
People displaced by war in Tartus, Syria live in slum area shanties, run-down apartments or on the streets. (file photo)

In spite of Islamic State bomb attacks on two of Syria's shoreline towns in May, the war-torn country's coastal region is relatively peaceful and a magnet for displaced people - presenting a huge challenge for a local ministry already scrambling to meet overwhelming needs.

The indigenous ministry, which has been helping the internally displaced since war broke out in 2011, plans to plant a new church in the coastal town of Tartus composed entirely of new arrivals.

"Barriers sometimes exist between the established locals of Tartus and the influx of IDPs [Internally Displaced People], with their enormous needs," said the director of the area ministry (name withheld for security reasons). "Ideally, separate churches need to be established for the newcomers, particularly as the numbers keep growing."

An estimated 700,000 people from other parts of Syria have fled to Tartus, a provincial official told Agence France-Presse (AFP), with about 60 percent of those from Aleppo Province, where battles are raging among the forces of President Bashar al-Hassad, opposition units and terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS).

"They may be living in makeshift shanties or tents, or on the streets of Tartus," the ministry director said. "The church is overflowing, so new church plants are needed to serve the displaced seeking a safe haven."

Fleeing from a conflict that has left more than 280,000 people dead and displaced half of Syria's population, most of the newcomers live outside official refugee camps, which are too few and small to accommodate them.

"They may be living in makeshift shanties or tents, or on the streets of Tartus," the ministry director said. "Those more fortunate may find a multi-room flat to share with other families. The existing church is overflowing, so new church plants are needed to serve the displaced seeking a safe haven in Tartus."

The ministry's 15 trained workers will be sent to the humble homes and tents of the displaced with food, medical care and basic survival items, building a platform of love on which the gospel will be shared. As people receive Christ, they will form a church plant. If and when they are able to return to their home villages in Syria, their growth in discipleship and ministry will enable them to plant new churches, while those who stay in Tartus will be equipped in the same way to replace the departed leaders.

Long a stronghold of Alwawites, the Shia-offshoot to which Hassad belongs, Tartus and another town in the coastal region, Jableh, were the targets of ISIS bombings on May 23. Both government strongholds, the two cities suffered seven suicide bombings, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. As if the Sunni terrorists sought to make a statement that no place is safe, bombings at bus stations, hospital entrances and other civilian sites killed about 80 people in Jableh and 50 in Tartus, according to news reports.

Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Tartus from Syrian war zones where fighting and atrocities are more common. Enough displaced people have come to Christ at the indigenous ministry's existing church that there is standing room only in the church building's patio. While creation of a new church for displaced people will relieve some of that crowding, some of the new arrivals will remain at the existing church, and the director plans to expand it to meet their needs and those of the growing number of Armenians, Kurds and former Yazidis, former Alawites and former Muslims putting their faith in Christ.

Seeking assistance to expand the existing facility and add a second service on Sundays, the ministry plans to increase participation from 150 people to 400 people, the leader said. As part of the church expansion, the existing church in Tartus is reaching out to the influx of children and wants to extend Vacation Bible School to them, he said. They plan to provide backpacks, books, and clothing to children who lack these items and hold church services and Sunday school designed especially for children.

Syrian children with old woman.
War has torn families apart in Syria, with care of children often left to older relatives. (file photo)

The church building's expansion into the patio area will help serve the community by providing a place for children's ministry throughout the week and for medical care, he said. Children's outreach by 25 workers will include Bible stories to teach literacy, Vacation Bible School and Saturday church services for children.

Indigenous missionaries expect to establish at least one home group per month.

"These home groups will be the foundation for new churches, which ultimately will meet in a house or suitable building refurbished for church and outreach purposes," he said.

The church has long reached out to the Tartus' 2,000 Domari Gypsies, and it plans to establish a tent church among them. Most Domari Gypsies are Muslims, but mainstream Muslims in Syria do not accept them as part of their clan, the ministry director said. They lack medical care and are generally not allowed admittance to hospitals.

As the pastor's son is a medical doctor, the indigenous church's medical team is perfectly positioned to engage them.

"Our pastor has developed three strategic ways to share the gospel with the Domari Gypsies: planting a church within the Gypsy community, offering literacy classes for adults and children, and medical assistance," the ministry director said. "One Gypsy convert has been trained in church planting, and he and his wife are ready to become missionaries."

As the Domari Gypsies are considered stateless and are mostly illiterate, they are often taken advantage of and shunned, he added. Signing their names with only an "X," many Gypsies have been swindled by signing documents without knowing their content. The indigenous ministry's trainees will offer literacy classes, using the Bible as a part of the curriculum for reading and writing.

Assisted by Christian Aid Mission, the church pastor (unnamed for security reasons) has worked in Tartus for several years and is a well-respected Christian leader in Syria, the ministry director said. The pastor and his team, including his medical doctor son, are deeply committed to providing physical and spiritual healing for a community in flux with an upsurge in needs. To help indigenous missionaries meet needs, you may contribute online using the form below, or call (434) 977-5650. If you prefer to mail your gift, please mail to Christian Aid Mission, P.O. Box 9037, Charlottesville, VA 22906. Please use Gift Code: 400CPME. Thank you!

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