Four years ago this week a group of young teenagers with a can full of paint sprayed messages on a wall in the Syrian city of Daraa. They couldn’t have known it but, over the next nine days, their graffiti would escalate into the Syrian civil war, which reaches its fourth anniversary on 15 March.
The sprayed messages said ‘the people want to topple the regime’, echoed in other countries during the Arab Spring.
The Syrian government was quick to act: it arrested the group of 15 boys aged 10-15, interrogated and tortured them.
Thousands turned out on the streets and the boys were released. The protests continued and spread to cities across Syria before turning violent and developing into full-scale civil war. The first protestors to die were killed on 18 March – by security forces trying to stop a rally.
In the early days of the protests Christians were split on whether or not to get involved.
Achmed, 20 when the war started, lived in Daraa. “People in church thought it was good to be out on the street. Others thought the opposite – that protesting would destroy the country. But for a Christian it was normal to side with the government.
People suddenly found it easy to kill
“At first we didn’t think a few people shouting protests on the street would be so bad. But then the shooting started and it all changed. There was blood on the streets. People suddenly found it easy just to kill someone else. My father said at the time that this will never end.”
Achmed left Daraa and moved abroad. Many of his friends stayed and became victims of the fighting.
“Every time I remember my school friends it’s hard to believe that so many are gone – just two or three are left from 50 or so. They are dead just because they took to the streets.”
Churches were drawn into the conflict; they helped deliver relief aid to those trying to escape the fighting.
Pastor Boutros’ church in Tartus, a coastal town close to the border with Lebanon, doubles as a provider of aid to Christian and Muslim families across 10 cities.
“In the beginning we helped 16 families. Now it’s more than 3,000. They’ve lost their homes, their jobs and their savings. Some have lost parents or children. They depend on us.”
Each month his church distributes food and hosts medics who deliver talks about preventable diseases. But they travel further afield if families have found remote refuge.
“In Safita (18 miles east of Tartus), we brought together 300 children from seven villages and gave them winter clothes – a sweater, scarf, ear muffs and a hat – and some sweets.”
Pastor Boutros believes going the extra mile for people will pay off. “We see how happy people are because someone visited and asked about them. This kind of relationship with people is the solution to the problems in Syria. When people hear what their enemies have done they want revenge, but the church is helping people become reconciled.”
Like Pastor Boutros, Pastor Samuel stayed in the country during the civil war. He lives in Aleppo, Syria’s second city close to the border with Turkey, and his ministry brings him into contact with people living in fear of Islamic State spreading towards the city.
“This week the main question families have is: ‘Shall we wait to be killed or shall we leave the country?'” he says.
The question is more urgent since ISIS attacked Assyrian Christian villages on the banks of the Khabur River and destroyed their homes, burnt churches, and took more than 200 hostage.
“ISIS is only 30km away and this makes people very afraid. People here feel that no one is helping the Christians in eastern Syria or even trying to rescue hostages. Many people say to me: ‘Are we waiting for the extremists to attack us and do things that even animals wouldn’t do? Are we going to be massacred again as in 1915?'”
This year marks 100 years since the Armenian genocide when at least one million Armenian Christians were slaughtered.
At least 220,000 have lost their lives during the Syrian civil war, according to the most recent UN figures (15th January), including over 10,000 children. About 3.8m Syrians have fled their country, with many living in tents or other temporary housing in neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. More than 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced. These figures mean that almost half of all Syrians are no longer living in their homes.
An estimated 40 per cent of Christians have left Syria for neighbouring countries or the West.