Of an estimated population of 17 million in Syria, 11 million have either left the country or been internally displaced by the civil war which ‘officially’ enters its 5th year today, 15th March. This was when protests began in Deraa, which quickly led to the spiral down into civil war. About 4.5million have left Syria but, for many others still there, there are new beginnings with new opportunities – in both business and in living out their faith.
Some enterprising Syrians are in churches which are creating work and opportunities for those who stay on in the war-torn country, and others – church leaders – are adapting to the growing interest in Christianity of former Muslims in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, where new former-Muslim believers can at times outnumber long-time church-goers.
Real names and exact locations cannot be disclosed for security reasons
The opening of a factory is usually a sign of renewed confidence in the economy; in Syria it’s a necessity, driven by a need to reverse the destruction caused by five years of civil war.
Thirty people in one of the Syrian cities to have suffered terrible destruction during the war are newly employed in a furniture factory that opened in February. It’s hoped that a paying job will stop their families leaving the city like so many others, fearful for their lives.
The idea for the factory came from a local Orthodox priest. After drawing up a convincing business plan he found a private partner and now its business prospects look good – the factory even has international orders on its books.
In August 2015 last year a pharmacy opened – a vital new business in another besieged city in Syria. Again backed by church funding, it provides discounted medicines to the elderly and vulnerable.
One big challenge for people in Syria is the lack of a water supply, regularly cut off over the last two years. The water in some wells isn’t safe to drink; sanitation experts think this may have been behind an outbreak of infections and skin allergies.
A church group decided to create a new well. Local authority approval helped them overcome some of the challenges. “We got approval to dig much deeper than the usual 100 meters. We chose this depth because 100-meter wells can dry up during the year, and deeper wells guarantee a continuous provision of water,” said a representative from the church.
The well took six weeks to dig.
“We reached the required depth in January. After that, a company installed the pump and filters to create water storage,” he added.
The well should produce 10,000 litres of water per day, to serve 500 families, each allowed to take 20 litres of water each day.
Former Muslims who are now Christians outnumber long-time church goers
Before Syria’s civil war, it was unusual to find a Muslim converting to Christianity, but, after five years, you can find many former Muslims in churches in Syria and neighbouring Lebanon, where many Syrians have fled.
A church leader in southern Syria thinks the war has played a part: “[Muslims] are open to hear from the Bible after the atrocities they’ve seen in the name of religion.
“Some come because they found what they were taught about Christianity was wrong. They were raised to believe the Bible is corrupt.”
Being away from family and friends has also allowed some to explore Christianity. “They are now displaced and their closest family members can’t see where they are going and what they are doing”.
Church leaders overcome some of the challenges of former Muslims by using the language of Islam.
“We give special lessons to answer their questions comparing Christianity and Islam” says one.
“We say about faith that it’s “the same dish but with a different dressing”. We use some of their terms but never compromise about the truth,” says a pastor from Lebanon.
Another one adds: “In my teaching I focus on the ideas that they carry from their former religion.”
Church growth from former Muslims has its challenges, with long-time church members being initially suspicious. “We are cautious about their sincerity. These new believers used to persecute us. We get complaints from a few of the long-time Christian members.”
Some church members are suspicious of their reasons.
“Are these people truly believers, or are they coming to spy, or because we are giving hand-outs? In my case I disciple them one-on-one first because of trust issues,” a pastor from Southern Syria says. “The new believers are afraid that other people will know about them because it is really a scandalous thing in their community if people discover them being Christians”.
One pastor in Damascus is cautious because the authorities don’t like Muslims converting to Christianity. “So we do our ministry with caution, keeping away from publicity and social media. We don’t tell anyone about the work.”
All pastors say their churches have special discipleship training for these new believers. One says: “We disciple them and it changes their view of the world. We encourage them to stay firm, despite the persecution and the trouble that they might face in the future.”
Refugees turning to Christianity in Lebanon have created a demand for more church buildings.
“We now have more than 20 ‘churches’ meeting in people’s houses and believe we will grow much bigger. More than 100 families are waiting for us to find them a house church,” said one pastor.
Many helping in the churches are themselves refugees and former Muslims. “I would say that 70 per cent of our team helping the refugees are refugees themselves who have come to Christ,” says a Lebanese pastor about his congregation. “So they are now serving their own people. We are trying to equip them to be leaders in the future when they go back home.”