The world’s eyes have turned away from Turkey and Syria in the weeks after the earthquakes that devastated Syria. There continue to be aftershocks, and the recovery effort continues—not to mention the rebuilding process that will probably take years.
In Syria, Centers of Hope—Open Doors partner churches that provide community services to Christians who suffered under a decade of war and Islamic extremism—were able to immediately spring into action after the earthquake. Long-term relationships in the community meant that there was built-in trust, and the knowledge that there was a safe place nearby with food and warmth. Open Doors’ partnerships meant your gifts could be immediately put to work, and will go on helping long after the world has focused elsewhere.
We recently spoke with Rev. Ibrahim, a Syrian pastor in Aleppo. As the media coverage of the earthquakes subsides, Rev. Ibrahim’s work is just beginning. We wanted to know how we can pray—and how we can help. Here’s what he said:
Q: Rev. Ibrahim, can you tell us about your mindset in the first days after the earthquake?
Rev. Ibrahim: I’m so thankful to God for all of our partners who dedicated a lot of their not only money, [but also] emotions and prayers for us in Aleppo. I went up and I started to organize the shelter and this shelter was open for everybody.
We never asked people about their religion. We never asked people about their ethnic [background]. All what we have seen in those is what Jesus said [in Matthew 25]: “You never took care of me.” They said to Jesus, “When we didn’t do that?” He said, “Because you haven’t done it with those who are weak, you didn’t do it with me. I was hungry. You didn’t feed me.”
'For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat... I was a stranger and you invited me in...’
So, I told everybody, “Go ahead and let us start feeding the people.” They were thirsty. I said, “Go ahead and bring drinkable water for everybody.” Because there was a danger that the water was not clean because of the earthquake. We started to distribute blankets, mattresses, and … to arrange places [to stay] for people.
In the first day, we received 633 people that we took care of. And the second day we received 697 people. In the third day we received 253 people. I don’t remember the other numbers for the days after, but … as a church, by the grace of God, we were there.
Churches all around Aleppo opened their doors for those in need of shelter and warmth after the earthquakes
What has the response from the community been like?
It was really a blessing that the church was available. We were as a church, by the grace of God, conscious about what is happening when [chaos was happening in that moment]. I can tell you that we were from the beginning [people] who started to take care of the community.
Ladies started to arrange for sandwiches. The clinic’s [Author’s note: Rev. Ibrahim’s Center of Hope runs a small medical clinic] group started to take care of the children who were screaming. Everybody was there with everybody, trying to bring a type of peace into the lives of these people. As a church, we were well aware of our mission in that critical time.
“People of the cross, you were our family. You are our family here taking care of us.”
A Syrian lady who is not a believer
[One non-Christian woman] said to me: “People of the cross, you were our family. You are our family here taking care of us.” So, I can tell you that they have seen Jesus Christ working through us and not in terms of not facing challenges but in terms that He was with us. He was and is and will be with us in the critical times. In one way or another, the church was carrying the living existence of Jesus Christ among the [needy people].
What about from the Christian community?
Instead of concentrating on the bad situation, I was leading the [church in] how to deal with this critical situation and be an element that can make transformation in society because of the presence of Jesus Christ within this church. This was really the situation.
Later on, I had to deal with other critical questions that were raised from our community. Why did Jesus do that? And I had in a way or another to teach the people that it is not Jesus who did it and not God who did it because God does not do evil things. And I challenged them to go back and rethink about their life the way they are living.
“I tell you,” I said to the people, “when you meet God one day, you can ask Him why this happened. I have no answers. I have no answers that can comfort you. All that I can tell you: let us [turn] back to God. Let us repent. Let us build bridges with each other. Let us implement the existence of God into our personal life [and in a] horizontal way with others who are living among us.” This really was the real challenge for us as Christians and committed believers.
On [that first] Sunday morning, although the building was in [structural] danger, 350 people were in the worship service, not complaining, but telling God, “Have mercy over us and deliver us and bring us into your appropriate situation in our relationship with you.”
Rev. Ibrahim, would you share a little bit about the logistical side of your work?
There is a real challenge and this challenge is how can you be present in front of all of these needs. In Syria there is a proverb that says, “If you have money, you can get milk from a bird,” which is impossible.
So, it is not the existence of the material that is needed to support the people. It is there. We can get everything from the country itself, from the city itself. But what is needed is the money to pay for that.
Help today with a gift for the Centers of Hope in Syria and across the Middle East. A gift today will help both with emergency needs and long-term needs. Your support will provide things like food, Bibles, training and emergency care. Here are some ways your gift might be used:
- A gift of $100 can help three families in the disaster area receive medical help;
- When you give $55, a family can receive a warm a set of winter clothes to protect them from the cold weather;
- and a gift of $40 can help a family with a food package.
What was the situation like in Aleppo before the earthquake—and how has it worsened?
[Before the earthquakes], people were not even able to eat. They were just depending and relying on what we do—food baskets, hygiene baskets. Churches were trying always to decrease the suffering of the people. But what we were doing was so little in comparison to the needs.
For example, say you receive only $12 per month, which is equal to 90,000 Syrian pounds per month, as a salary. If you are sick and you wanted to go to doctor, the doctor charges you 25,000 Syrian pounds to examine you and then he or she will write a prescription for you and this script will maybe cost 200,000 Syrian pounds.
There was no public electricity. You have to get electricity from private generators. One amp for one week costs you 52,000 Syrian pounds and you need at least three amps to turn the lights into the apartment. I’m not speaking about the fridge. I’m not speaking about the washing machine. I’m not speaking about the microwave. Only lights in an apartment.
[And now] I can tell you we are living in catastrophe, and I am so afraid of cholera. I’m so, so afraid.
So we are coming to a very critical health problems. Therefore, whenever somebody speaks to me, I suggest supporting our clinic center. Why? In order to give medicine to the people for free. People are not able to pay for medicine.
Now every day we provide almost 1,500 sandwiches as a lunch for public shelters because nobody can afford food. We offer them food and water.
What keeps you going and what future do you see for the church in Syria?
I believe as a pastor who is called from Jesus Christ to serve his community, I have to be a good shepherd. When there was the war, I had chances to leave but […] I believe that I am called to be a servant of Jesus Christ and I have to be a good shepherd.
"I believe that I am called to be a servant of Jesus Christ and I have to be a good shepherd."
Most of the leaders of the [Syrian] church emigrated. But personally, it was not acceptable for me to leave. Jesus Christ got me out of my previous situation and transformed my life, and is calling me to transform the life of our community. Nothing at all is attractive in this part of the country. What attracts me to be in this country is Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ.
I was not called to serve Him in comfortable countries. He said, “those who want to follow me, let them carry their cross.” And I don’t believe it is by accident I am here. I think God has intention and has purpose to bring me into this part of the world.
How can we pray for you and the church in Syria?
First of all, pray for reconciliation between the people. Second, pray for one church. We need one church. Not in terms of one number. No, in terms of uniqueness. The church should be unique here. The third thing: May God accept our ministry, although it is not perfect.