Pastor George has stood with his congregation in Qamishli, Syria, through years of war, bombing and persecution. Coronavirus is a new, invisible threat meaning many are jobless, hungry and desperate.
In this article, discover how Open Doors partners like Pastor George are keeping hope alive in their communities, thanks to your gifts and prayers.
Pastor George Moushi leads a church in Qamishli, northern Syria. You may remember the story of how his church responded when the region was invaded by Turkish forces last autumn, providing vital aid for many vulnerable Syrians. Many of you generously gave and faithfully prayed for his community, and your support kept them going as they faced a very visible threat – bombs, soldiers, Islamic extremists.
Now they face the invisible threat of a pandemic – and the dangers of starvation, poverty and isolation that come with it.
“Covid-19 has a big impact on Qamishli; normal life is almost non-existent,” Pastor George explains. “The number of poor people has increased. Especially those people who are daily labourers who, if they don’t have work today, receive no wages. The need to provide for their family members and especially their children is bigger than ever. Due to the restrictions that prevent the virus spreading, the damage is huge for those families who were already needy in Qamishli.”
This is on top of the persecution Christians already face in Syria. But that’s not where the story started for Pastor George and his church.
The Syrian civil war began almost a decade ago. Before the war, there were about 1.8 million Christians in the country. Now there are only about 800,000 left.
Pastor George is an Open Doors partner, trained through an Open Doors discipleship programme, and your prayers and gifts to the ongoing Hope for the Middle East campaign have enabled him and his church to support the local community through dark and difficult years.
"Although the war was so awful, God turned ashes into beauty – a lot of people came to Christ." Pastor George
“The church in Qamishli started relief work in 2012,” says George. “It started relatively small, with just a handful of packages. Later we got more connections, we got support from Open Doors, and we helped more.”
And Open Doors partners like Pastor George don’t just help fellow believers. He knows that visible, tangible support can be a powerful way to show God’s love: “Through our relief and support programmes, we tried to build relationships with people, opening doors for them to know Jesus. The best hope we can offer is the hope that Jesus Christ offers.” People are helped without any conditions attached. “But we offer always the message of Jesus too, depending how open the door was. We didn’t only want to fill the stomach of the people.”
Because of this loving outreach, God hasn’t only blessed the church with food and money. Wonderfully, despite Christians leaving the area, Pastor George’s church has grown!
“Members left but, of course, God did not leave us,” says Pastor George. “A lot of people accepted Christ and were added to the church. Although the war was so awful, God turned ashes into beauty – a lot of people came to Christ.
“The war made people from a Muslim background question their faith. When the church started visiting them, they began to understand about God’s love. We show them that God is love and that God loves people. Some came to faith and they now come to church.”
About 30 per cent of Pastor George’s church, now, are Christians who have converted from Islam. They are among the most vulnerable to persecution.
“When a Muslim becomes a believer, of course they are persecuted,” says Pastor George. “They face persecution from their family, because Islam forbids a Muslim to become a Christian. It even says that a person should be killed.”
Pastor George has seen astonishing courage from new believers in his church. These Christians from Muslim backgrounds are well aware of the dangers, but still choose Jesus. Pastor George continues: “They are not afraid to be killed. A lot of them openly declared their faith, though they knew they might lose their inheritance, their properties, they might be threatened.”
And it isn’t just threats. “Some were beaten because of their faith,” says Pastor George. “In one family, the parents threatened to kill the new believer. Because of that, the person had to flee. But they stayed firm in Jesus. Persecution leads to believers who abide more in God. They are ready to die for Jesus.”
Being cut off from their families often makes new believers very economically vulnerable as well, but they have a new family in Pastor George’s church – and a new worldwide family of fellow believers supporting them in times of need.
One such time of need came in October 2019, when Turkish armed forces began bombing the region. “A lot of bombs fell on our city,” Pastor George remembers. “People were killed or injured; houses and shops were destroyed. There was a lot of fear that the Turkish army would enter our city.” Because your prayers and gifts have enabled Open Doors to stand with Pastor George’s church for almost a decade, they were fully equipped to respond immediately.
“We visited families and encouraged them,” says Pastor George. “We offered cash support and gave them coupons for food. Some of the displaced families came from other places to Qamishli, and they only had the clothes they were wearing when they fled. We helped them with warm clothes. How could we show the love of God to them, if we didn’t meet their most basic needs?” He quotes James 2:15-16: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”
“Thank you for your help to make that possible,” says Pastor George to Open Doors supporters. But his message is simple: “Please continue to help us.”
Open Doors partners distributing vital food and aid in Qamishli, Syria
Open Doors partners in the Middle East, like Pastor George, had intended to start scaling back emergency food distribution in 2020. The focus was going to be on rebuilding and activities that promote self-sufficiency. Coronavirus has changed all that. But Open Doors’ long-term presence in the country, and God’s faithfulness over many years, means that local partners are able to escalate plans to meet the new need caused by Covid-19.
Religious ministers have been exempted from travelling restrictions in Syria throughout the crisis, and so Pastor George is able to distribute aid to vulnerable members of his church – and to people outside it. “When we saw the increased need, we restarted relief distribution,” he says. “We gave people food and washing detergent coupons. Our church saw that now was a time to stand by the people, support them and show Jesus’ love in difficult times.”
“I wasn’t sure if the church would help me because I’m not Christian,” says May, a young woman displaced from Hama with her husband, toddler and baby. “But I had to ask, because my daughters are getting hungry and we are unable to support them.” The church in Qamishli gave her food and money for nappies – and showed her the love of Jesus in doing so.
The widespread need is clear. “People are hungry,” says Pastor George. “Some called me crying because they have no food for their kids and families. Especially displaced families who have no relatives here, so they can’t even ask to borrow money from anyone, just to keep them alive until this crisis ends. I see men, women and children crying of hunger. It’s tragic. We’re in dire need of funds to support a larger number of families.”
"People are hungry. Some called me crying because they have no food for their kids and families." Pastor George
With your support, churches such as Pastor George’s can make hope visible in the Middle East. Relief projects will build resilient families and resilient communities, enabling believers to shine the light of Christ into the region and into the world. Pastor George and other Open Doors partners will still be in Syria long after this crisis is over, responding to the needs they see, welcoming new believers to the church family, and building a strong community of Syrians worshipping God and making Jesus’ love visible to their neighbours.