Syria (MNN) — Despite President Bashar Assad's address Sunday in which he laid out terms for a peace plan, violence intensified.
In the first public speech he's made since June, Assad called on Syrians to fight the opposition and labeled them "religious extremists" and "terrorists." He also blamed them for the nearly two years of violence in which nearly 60,000 people have died.
Greg Musselman, a spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs Canada, says essentially, it was a declaration of war. "We all thought that Assad was really on his way out. That has been the prediction from the United States and other Western countries. Clearly he's not ready to quit. He's said he will fight to the death and he's going to die in Syria. That does not bode well for those that want peace."
As if bearing his words out to be true, over the last 48 hours government troops repulsed a rebel attack in Aleppo while fierce clashes broke out in the suburbs of Damascus. Aleppo is Syria's largest city and has been a prize both sides have struggled to keep since July. Damascus is near the seat of power.
International pressure has been mounting on Assad to step down, but instead, he struck a defiant tone. He also vowed to continue the battle. Musselman notes that "what happens if he was to fall: we could see situations like Egypt, where it's not going to be all that great for the Church, no matter what happens." What he means is that "they (Christians) are caught in the middle, and if they don't take sides, they're seen as being on the ‘other side.' It's a very difficult situation for them."
Although Assad offered a national reconciliation conference, elections, and a new constitution, it's contingent on a demand: Western countries stop funding and arming rebels trying to overthrow his regime.
Rebels are equally stubborn. Syria's opposition already rejected the proposal, dismissing any kind of settlement that leaves Assad in the picture. Previous diplomatic initiatives have failed to stem the bloodshed.
In the meantime, "We're monitoring the situation and trying to find ways to support the church," Musselman says. For many Christians, leaving seems safest. "They're trying to escape the violence. Churches have been destroyed. Christians have been targeted because they're Christians." He goes on to explain that the Church is "trying to survive and trying to figure out what's going on. Many of them….want to get out of here. That's creating a refugee problem…. Of course, that's not just the Christians."
According to the United Nations, in 2012 nearly 200,000 people fled Syria into neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Kurdistan. Not everyone got out. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) estimates that 2.5 million people inside Syria needed help, and there are about 1.5 million IDP Syrians (Internally Displaced Peoples).
Syria's conflict began as peaceful protests began in March 2011, part of the wave of the "Arab Spring." A brutal government crackdown on dissent quickly morphed into a civil war. Now, it seems to be changing into a fight between Sunni Muslim rebels and the Alawite regime, an offshoot group of Shiite Islam.
Christians, caught in the crossfire, are finding other ways to help. Many are organizing supply drops for the IDPs who can't get food, medicine, or other supplies. Others are working at the refugee camps, trying to help people survive winter. They know that at any moment, the tide could turn against them. "We know of churches that have been destroyed over the last year because they were churches. So there's a lot of intimidation, a lot of fear, and a lot of chaos at this point," says Musselman. But at the same time, it opens doors for outreach in the name of Christ. "Within the middle of that kind of desperation, for those that really do understand Christ, they will be able to bring some comfort."
Assad's continued defiance is disconcerting, Musselman concedes. "This situation has gone on a lot longer than I think any of us would have thought." They had hoped that by now "it would be settled down and we could take better stock of what's going on." You can keep praying for the Christian workers who remain behind to serve. Pray, too, for peace to return. Pray that the seeds of the Gospel will take root.