Syria (Christian Aid Mission) — Hundreds of Syrian children reveled in Christmas cheer this season, gaining joyful memories in the face of a New Year that brought ominous obstacles to peace.
A sharp rift between regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, along with the bombing of a school near Aleppo, torpedoed the progress of three rounds of international peace talks aimed at ending Syria’s nearly five years of civil war.
The rift began right after New Year’s, when Saudi Arabia on Jan. 2 executed leading Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others convicted of terror charges. A leader of protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority, Al-Nimr was convicted of sedition and other charges, though he had denied that he promoted violence.
The execution of Al-Nimr prompted protesters in Iran to attack the Saudi Embassy in Tehran and a consulate in Mashhad, and Saudi Arabia subsequently gave Iranian embassy personnel in Saudi Arabia 48 hours to leave. Saudi Arabia backs several of the Sunni Islam opposition groups fighting to depose President Bashar al-Assad, and Shiite Iran supports Assad.
While foreign powers such as the United States and Russia tried to encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to mend severed diplomatic relations that were sabotaging negotiations on Syria, Russia’s continued bombing of civilian targets in rebel-held Syria also threatened peace talks – and took the lives of Syrian children.
Various aid and rights groups have accused Russia of bombing hospitals since it began flying sorties in late September (which Moscow denies), and this week the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) accused Russia of killing at least 12 children in the aerial bombing of a school in rebel-held Injara, nine miles outside Aleppo. A teacher also reportedly died, and several others were critically wounded, according to SOHR.
The opposition coordinator in Syria, Riad Hijab, claimed this week that Russian bombers struck three schools, killing 35 children, and that such attacks preempted opposition talks with Assad’s administration.
“We want to negotiate, but to do that, the conditions have to be there,” Hijab said after meeting with French President Francois Hollande, according to Reuters.
Many of the families fleeing fighting in Syria have drifted to the southwestern cities of Sweida and Dara, though Dara too has seen its share of mortar-fire and gunshot over the past year.
During the Christmas season, an indigenous ministry organized Christmas programs in both cities to enable children, for a few hours, to be children – enjoying games, skits and Christmas songs.
“The faces of the children shined with joy, as they have not experienced much joy in the past year of hardship in Syria,” said the ministry leader, whose name is withheld for security reasons.
“It was wonderful to see them shed the heaviness and worry of living in such perilous times and to play as children.”
The ministry, with assistance from Christian Aid Mission, put on skits telling the story of Jesus’ birth as well as presenting the Gospel, he said.
“Each child received a little treat, which for them, in this place of lack, was big,” the director said. “Perhaps the greatest gift that we gave them was a Bible for each child. We would like to thank you for your prayers for the ministry, and for the support you send. Your assistance helped us to provide Christmas outreaches where we were able to share the Gospel.”
Another ministry in Syria, this one in Aleppo, also cheered children with Christmas programs, and in Lebanon, one of the neighboring countries receiving Syrian refugees, an indigenous ministry brightened children’s daily lives with a Christmas party and a Christmas dinner. About 83-percent of the 1,428 refugees the ministry is serving are Muslims, the Lebanese ministry director said.
The organization, unnamed for security reasons, is helping nearly 320 families, and that number is expected to reach 370 families by the end of the year.
“We know the Lord Jesus has given us a critical window of time to reach them,” the director said. “When we look ahead at what this situation will likely be in five years, we think that some of the refugees are going to stay in Lebanon, and others will immigrate to Europe, the USA, and Australia.
“We would love to see them as believers of the Lord Jesus, who strongly know and follow Him and take the Gospel with them to all those places.”
With knowledge of refugee culture and customs, as well as local supply contacts, the indigenous ministry is well-positioned to help with immediate emergency needs for food, medical aid and shelter, he said.
“The best way to reach them is to provide food, support for some of their costs for medical needs, and shelter,” the leader said. “As we show the love of Christ, we will make and keep relationships with them, and we hope that will result in them having a relationship with the Lord Jesus.”
The ministry’s long-term goal is to establish a church among the refugees, with leaders developed from among them, he said. At his own church, 60 Muslim women already regularly attend a women’s meeting, along with about 70 of their children. Between 65 and 100 Muslim Syrian children attend the church’s Sunday school each week.
“From time to time we do a dinner for men and share with them about Christ, the Bible, and talk openly and frankly about the Gospel,” he said. “We have two full-time ministers, one part-time minister, and a few volunteers who are reaching out.
“The Lord Jesus is working, and we are planting the seed and praying to see the fruit.”