By Elizabeth Kendal, originally published in the Wednesday, Aug. 17 edition of the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin.
In Aleppo, Syria, churches serve as enemies threaten
President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, has said concerning the Battle for Aleppo: ‘This is beyond doubt, one of the most devastating urban conflicts in modern times.’ Around 250,000 people remain trapped in Aleppo’s rebel-held east. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu describes them as ‘hostages’, unable to flee because the rebels have mined the humanitarian corridors and manned them with snipers. Meanwhile, more than a million citizens — including some 40,000 mostly Assyrian and Armenian Christians — remain in Aleppo’s government-held west.
Having broken through the government siege of rebel-held eastern Aleppo [see RLPB 370 (10 Aug)], the al-Qaeda-led Jaysh al-Fatah will doubtless exploit its success to attract more jihadists into its camp, including many displaced Islamic State (IS) fighters. These al-Qaeda-led jihadists (95 percent of whom are foreign: including Chechens, Uzbeks, Saudis, Chinese Uyhgurs etc) are now engaged in a full-scale offensive aimed at capturing western Aleppo. Having failed to breach the government’s lines using remote-controlled vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, we can expect that suicide bombers will be next.
Civilians bear the brunt
Meanwhile, they are endlessly shelling civilian districts. A humanitarian crisis is deepening in western Aleppo, although the Western media seem to have little interest in the plight of loyalist Syrians. Electricity is limited and, due to recent fighting, the flow of water and the main supply line have been cut, meaning water, food, fuel and medicines are scarce. Furthermore, unlike the Syrian nationalist Alawite-dominated military, the Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’ite militias pouring into Aleppo are purely sectarian and interested only in geostrategic outcomes.
Churches play vital role
Despite the dire situation, western Aleppo’s churches continue to serve and minister. The deputy director of the public assistance department at Aleppo’s Orthodox Sunday schools, Samir Samaan, reports that Aleppo’s Saint Elias Cathedral is caring for some 4000 newly displaced families — half of them Muslim, half of them Christian.
Similarly, Jesuit priest Fr Ziad Hilal said the churches are working to feed those left in Aleppo, regardless of their religion. ‘We have a big kitchen, this kitchen was sponsored by ACN [Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need] and other associations, and a lot of people come — we give about 7500 meals every day. It is a lot, and the team is a Muslim and Christian team, and a lot of the people who benefit from these meals are Muslims. [So] on one side things are dark, things are sad — on the other hand we see the activities of the Church there and how the people, especially the Christian associations, are helping. These provide a sign of hope. Our mission is important there.’ Father Ibrahim describes it as ‘a miracle’, noting that all the while, Christians in Aleppo are fasting and praying that ‘the will for peace’ will prevail ‘over the will for war’.
Diplomatic solutions unreliable and uncertain
Meanwhile, Russia is working on the diplomatic front to leverage co-operation from Turkey. Facing economic and political challenges at home, Turkey’s President Erdogan may well decide that clamping down on the Turkish border (often referred to as the jihadi highway) might be worthwhile in exchange for Russia ending sanctions and resurrecting Turkstream, a new gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey. If Russia can bring about a shift in Turkish policy, it would be a game-changer, for the jihadists in northern Syria simply could not survive without Turkish support.
Meanwhile, Russia and the USA are also moving closer to an agreement on co-operating to end the Battle for Aleppo. The US will however have difficulty convincing their US-backed ‘good rebel’ proxies to disengage from the successful al-Qaeda-linked jihadists. In reality, that is unlikely to happen, leaving the US in a compromised position, having to choose between protecting their ‘rebel’ proxies or the Christians those ‘rebels’ intend to slaughter. Meanwhile, the imperilled Christians of western Aleppo cling to hope — ministering and witnessing, fasting and praying — as the enemy threatens at the gate.
PLEASE PRAY SPECIFICALLY THAT
* Yahweh Sabaoth — the Lord of hosts — will intervene in Aleppo, to ‘preserve all who love him’ (Psalm 145:20 ESV) and ‘frustrate the way of the wicked’ (Psalm 146:9 NIV).
* the Spirit of God will subvert the ‘rebellion’ so that the ‘will for peace’ will indeed prevail over ‘the will for war’.
* Jehovah jireh, the Lord our provider, will keep Aleppo’s churches well supplied with all the funds, resources and workers they need to continue serving and ministering as lights in the darkness.
‘You are the light of the world . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ (Matthew 5:14-16 ESV)