Syria is an economic disaster after nine years of civil war and the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the crisis has hobbled a native ministry as well – even as workers have seen more people come to Christ.
Though government forces had retaken most of the country from rebel factions more than a year ago, most of Syria’s infrastructure remains in ruins due in part to corruption and international economic sanctions. Prices of gas and food can rise multiple times in one day. Rice, some medicines and other essentials are disappearing, and reportedly many people would leave the country as 5.5 million already have if entry to other countries were not now blocked.
The economic chaos amid a funding crunch due to the pandemic has forced a native ministry to scale back its number of local missionaries while ratcheting up the intensity of its crisis response mode.
“As we are able, our leaders continue to distribute food and clothing to those that lack,” the leader of the native ministry said. “Our target criteria: any person that is in need.”
More than 6.6 million people remain internally displaced in Syria, according to United Nations figures, and the government has welcomed aid from the native ministry.
“This year we have received a lot of communication from the government asking for assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the leader said. “Although limited in resources, our leaders took advantage of the opportunity and are using it to share the gospel in additional areas we have never worked in.”
The aid the local missionaries are providing has garnered favor from new contacts within different communities, he said.
“Increased respect being shown to our leaders is resulting in the opening of numerous new doors to build relationships,” the leader said.
CutbacksWhile opportunities and need have increased, the ministry has had to cut its staff in half, he said.
“Like everyone else around the world, we have had to make adjustments,” he said. “Although we continue to operate with reduced leaders, our ability to meet needs has been diminished. We know that if we are supposed to do more, God will supply in His abundance. In the meantime, we embrace this as an opportunity to reevaluate our definition of ‘need to’ and ‘nice to’ as we inquire of the Lord.”
The extent to which Syria is suffering from COVID-19 is shrouded in secrecy, but Middle East observers say its hospitals are overflowing with people infected by the novel coronavirus, and many medical workers are unprotected.
After an initial lockdown of a few months in the spring, the country has largely resumed operations without credible information forthcoming about the extent of the pandemic. Only the wealthy or well-connected can obtain testing, the Middle East Institute reports, and widespread reports of burials on social media contradict low official figures of COVID-19 cases.
Hospitals were operating at maximum capacity due to damages from civil war even before the pandemic. The country has received token medical help from Russia and a few other states friendly to the regime, but hospitals are increasingly overwhelmed as the virus spreads.
The war continues in Idlib, a small rebel stronghold in the northwest, further complicating the country’s recovery.
“The ongoing war’s impacts are exacerbated by the global outbreak of COVID-19 and its associated economic and societal pressures,” the ministry leader said. “Paradoxically, though, in our suffering we rejoice as we anxiously look to the glory that will be revealed when we are face to face with the risen Lord. So, until we are with Him, we fix our eyes on Jesus and look to Him for faith, courage and strength to be about the Father’s business – sharing the message of our Savior, Jesus Christ, with words of hope and bread to the desperate.”
In spite of these difficulties, local ministries were able to provide food aid to 6,500 people, care for 10,000 children and help 3,200 refugees the first half of the year, he said. The COVID-19 crisis opened opportunities to work in new areas, leading to 12 new fellowships as workers answered questions about why they were helping people.
“Over the past six months, and as a direct blessing of COVID-19, we have initiated and overseen the set-up of 12 house groups,” the ministry leader said. “As we are able to move within the COVID-19 confinement, we meet to encourage leaders and home groups.”
Ministry workers were facing difficult circumstances even before the pandemic hit. In January the ministry dispatched two teams from Lebanon to encourage ministry leaders and home groups under stress from religious opposition and economic chaos.
“It is amazing how the benefits of personal presence encourage someone else to press on,” the ministry leader said. “Current leaders are working very hard; they are exhausted and under a lot of stress.”
They are also heartened by the joy of seeing people come to Christ. After one evangelistic outreach before the pandemic, a woman told workers she had been fearful and despondent since her husband disappeared five years before.
“During the outreach event a lady came to us saying that she had never felt that peace the ways she did during the outreach,” the leader said. “She said, ‘Today when I heard the message of joy and peace, it gave me hope. I want this peace that I have to go to my family as well.’ She asked our team to come and visit them and would love to have a Bible study at her place.”
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