Hunter Williamson

Thirteen years of civil war and regional crises have left Syria in ruins. But amid the destruction and despair, a Thimar partner church is a light on the hill, a messenger of the Gospel and hope.

For thirteen years, Pastor Bassem* has shepherded a Baptist church in northwest Syria through the country’s brutal civil war. 

The church sits in a town far from the frontlines, a town that has been a place of refuge for those fleeing conflict. Many found physical safety in the town, but it is more than just physical safety that people have needed. Civil war has left Syria in ruins. Regional crises have exacerbated the destruction and bloodshed, affecting tens of millions of lives. Hope is hard to find, but it is something that Bassem and the church have sought to provide. 

March marked the 13th anniversary of Syria’s civil war, a conflict that began with anti-government demonstrations and then spiraled into a bloody, geopolitical proxy war. Thirteen years of conflict have displaced more than half of the pre-war population of roughly 21 million, left hundreds of thousands of people dead, and destroyed much of the country.  

Today, fighting is not as intense as in years past, but the country remains fractured, the civil war pro-longed by a set of complex, low-intensity conflicts between local and outside actors. These conflicts perpetuate the civil war and the fallout from it, sparking and fueling even more drivers of hardship and despair in Syria. 

Speaking with Thimar by phone in March, Bassem said that economic collapse and immigration have become the most pressing issues facing Syrians. “The truth is that we are living in another face of the war,” Bassem said. “We might not see military operations – we haven’t seen this happening since 2019, but the war is taking another face, which is the war against keeping Syrians inside Syria. We see that the true war is immigration, to kick Syrians out of Syria. It started with battles, and today it took a socio-economic face. This is harder and harsher than military war. That is because in military war, some areas remain safe, but in this living-cost and economic crisis, no place is safe.” 

From ABTS to Syria

Bassem has served in the church in Syria for more than three decades. After studying at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary – a ministry of Thimar-LSESD – in Lebanon in the early 2000s, he returned to Syria and served in ministry in various parts of the country before settling in a town in the northwest. He and other founding members of the church started home groups and other outreach programs. Two years later, the civil war began. The church has faithfully served people – believers and non-believers alike – ever since. 

Bassem said that the church was one of the first to start working on the ground when the war began in 2011. People fleeing fighting between government forces and opposition groups found safe haven in the town, its hills, green fields, and valleys. By 2012, the church was supporting 250 families, regardless of religion. Overtime, the church expanded its ministries and support further afield to cities directly affected by the escalating civil war. The more people they helped, the larger their ministry grew as beneficiaries referred other people they knew to the church. 

“Our love for Christ was behind our service,” Bassem said. “If it wasn’t for our love for Christ, we wouldn’t have done it.” As Syria’s civil war dragged on, it exacerbated societal and sectarian divisions, making the support that the church provided all the more impactful. Non-Christians were surprised to see someone not from their background and faith reaching out. People would ask Bassem: “Why are you doing this, why are you helping us?” 

“This question was the key for us to testify about our love for Christ,” Bassem explained. It was a question that opened the door for him and the church to share the Gospel, to meet not only people’s physical needs but their spiritual ones too.  

Syria Earthquake ruins

Growing Needs

Today, the civil war in Syria has become something of a low-intensity, frozen conflict. 

The Syrian military, supported by Iran and Russia, continues to bomb areas controlled by opposition and Islamist forces in northwest Syria. Government forces, which now control about 70% of Syria, occasionally come under fire, though it is not always clear from whom. ISIS, though no longer controlling any territory, still has active cells dispersed across the country. The Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), a multi-ethnic, Kurdish-led enclave backed by the US, remains at war with Turkey and opposition groups under its sway that control large swathes of territory across northern Syria. The US maintains at least 900 troops in the country, ostensibly as part of an international coalition aimed at ensuring the total defeat of ISIS. Israel regularly launches airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria. And Jordan recently launched its own airstrikes, seemingly in a bid to curtail rampant drug trafficking along its border. 

These conflicts perpetuate the overall civil war and state of instability, but they are not the only drivers of hardship and despair in Syria. Bassem said that economic collapse and immigration have become the most pressing issues for Syrians. Many church members have emigrated, he said, and those who haven’t, talk regularly about how they are looking for an opportunity to. In March alone, two families in the church left Syria. “This is an indication that people have lost hope of a better future,” Bassem said. Others are forced to work more than one job to make ends meet, hindering them from attending church gatherings and ministries. 

The accumulation of prolonged war, corruption and mismanagement, Western sanctions, and regional crises have left Syria’s economy in ruins. The national currency, the Syrian pound, has lost 99.64 percent of its value since the start of the war. In 2011, it stood at 47 pounds to the dollar. This January, it was at 14,775 to the dollar. Meanwhile, costs for everything from fuel to medicine to food continue to rise. In September, the minimum cost of living was reportedly 5.9 million pounds ($418) a month, while the minimum wage was only 185,940 ($13). In 2023, Syria reportedly had the third-highest level of annual economic inflation in the world. Rising costs and deteriorating living conditions have sparked new waves of anti-government protests, with some of the most recent being in Daraa, the southern village where the civil war began and which is now under the control of the Syrian government. 

The effects of the economic collapse compounded in February 2023 when a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southeast Turkey and northwest Syria, leaving upwards of 60,000 people dead. In Syria alone, the earthquake is estimated to have affected around 8.8 million people and caused $5.1 billion in damages. 

Supported by Middle East Revive and Thrive (MERATH), a ministry of Thimar-LSESD, the church responded quickly to the disaster. “The earthquake was a shocking and devastating event… (especially because it affected an) area that had never witnessed such an event,” Bassem said. “This created uncertainty and insecurity, fear in people already weary because of war.” 

But amid the disaster, there was also an opportunity for the church to reach people. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the church gathered and prayed in the streets. Some people joined them in prayer and even started attending church services. 

A year on, the effects of the earthquake continue to compound the fallout of the war. Some 7.2 million people remain displaced in Syria as a result of conflict and the earthquake, with another 5.1 million residing outside the country. The number of people in need continues to rise, with the UN saying this year that 16.7 million people require some form of humanitarian assistance. It’s a gigantic need that aid organizations are struggling to meet. At the end of 2023, the World Food Programme ended its general food assistance programme due to funding shortages, affecting 3.2 million people. 

In the face of such growing challenges and needs, the church continues to help their community the best they can. Each month, the church supports 50 families with food, health care, and other medical needs. The church also supports students’ education and runs ministries for women and children. “The collapsed economy and earthquake caused people to lose all the possibilities to stand on their feet,” Bassem said. “Our vision is to be a family to those who lost their families and to be the living for those whose souls were traded and whose futures and lives were shattered.” 

Growth and the Future 

Prior to the civil war, an estimated 10 percent of Syria’s population was Christian. Most belonged to eastern denominations, primarily Orthodox Christianity, while Baptists and other denominations made up 1 percent. 

Today, the figures are not clear, but Bassem estimated that only 1 percent of Syrians are Christian, and of them, Baptists remain a minority. Syria’s constitution provides for religious freedom, but Bassem said that members of the church still face challenges and persecution from their community. Still, the church continues to reach more and more people. During any given service, he estimated that 65 percent of the congregation is non-Christians. 

A Church in Syria

The conflict and economic and humanitarian challenges facing Syria are likely to persist. After more than a decade of demands from Western countries and some regional states for him to step down from power, Syrian President Bashar Assad appears poised to stay in office. In May 2021, he won another round of presidential elections, and a number of regional states once opposed to him have started restoring and normalizing diplomatic relations. But despite this, an end to the war does not appear in sight in the near term, and while the Arab League voted last year to reinstate Syria into its fold, member states seem unwilling or unable to invest in Syria’s economy and reconstruction, which is estimated to cost upwards of $400 billion. Damascus’ main allies, Iran and Russia, have also not helped Syria out of its economic downturn and with rebuilding. 

Despite the grim future and challenges ahead, Bassem remains committed to his church and ministry in Syria. He finds inspiration from Matthew 10, when Jesus looked at people and saw them as scattered sheep, in pain and without a shepherd. 

“I felt that it is a calling from God to serve among people who lost everything, including hope in God,” he said. “In this area that is the darkest place, the devil is working with all his strength to destroy everything. Yet, we felt God is calling us to be light in this darkness and salt in this corruption.” 

 

Child in a displacement camp in Syria

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This