A month after Turkey and northern Syria buckled under the worst earthquake to hit the region in nearly a century, rescue efforts for victims trapped under rubble have shifted to relief efforts for survivors buried under loss.
The official death toll stands at more than 50,000 people—that’s more than twice the number killed by an infamous quake that struck near Istanbul in 1999. Even moments of hope carried marks of loss: Rescuers found a newborn baby alive in the rubble, but the tiny infant is now an orphan.
Even moments of hope carried marks of loss
Indeed, the region is filled with widows, orphans, and others in distress. Christian groups and local churches are among the many organizations seeking to offer practical help, even as they try to assess long-term needs.
But many in the region suffered long before the disaster.
As survivors mark the one-month anniversary of the Feb. 6 quake, many Syrians are remembering a different anniversary: It’s been 10 years since ISIS militants began seizing territory in Syria and Iraq—and displacing huge chunks of a Christian population with roots stretching back to the New Testament era.
The siege was part of a larger civil war that has raged for more than a decade in Syria. That war has displaced some 6 million people within the country and has driven out more than 5 million.
Many of those refugees ended up near the Turkey-Syria border, and they now find themselves distressed again.
On the Run
Before Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, as much as 10 percent of the country’s 22 million people identified as Christians in the majority-Muslim nation. The early years of fighting drove hundreds of thousands of Syrians from their homes, including many Sunni Muslims.
In 2013, militants from the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) intensified their own attacks in the region and targeted religious minorities. A report from the U.S. State Department offered a grim year-in-review: “In 2013, the world witnessed the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory.”
The report noted: “In Syria…the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self.”
The shadow narrowed in 2014, as ISIS declared a caliphate—shorthand for Islamic rule—and many more Christians and other religious minorities fled. The militants executed a similar campaign in northern Iraq, brutally targeting women and girls in an ancient religious group known as the Yazidis.
Over the next several years of fighting, ISIS eventually lost most of the territory that it had gained, but the damage was done. The Christian population that had comprised 10 percent of the country a few years before was now less than 5 percent. Some think it’s as low as 2.5 percent.
On the Border
Turkey responded to Syria’s crisis in 2011 by opening its borders to refugees. Today, as many as 3.5 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Sadly, about half of those live in the provinces stricken by the Feb. 6 quake.
That means a multitude of Syrian refugees who had managed to rebuild their lives after fleeing their homes now face starting all over again. It’s an uphill battle for anyone living in the region, but Syrians also face the added pressure of anti-refugee sentiment among some in Turkey.
Some Syrians could grow desperate enough to return home, but Syria remains dangerous, including for Christians who have fled. A 2019 report from the U.S. State Department noted: “Christians continue to face discrimination and violence.”
On the Church’s Doorstep
Since the Feb. 6 quake, relief groups from around the world have poured into the region to offer help. The needs are overwhelming, and grief swamps many who have lost loved ones as well as their homes.
In a country that can be difficult for Christians, believers are finding opportunities to reach out to communities in need. The First Hope Association, a Turkey-based Christian relief group, has organized supplies and relief efforts, and it’s helped the U.S.-based Samaritan’s Purse open a 52-bed field hospital in the devastated region.
In a country that can be difficult for Christians, believers are finding opportunities to reach out to communities in need
Working with locals is key: Local churches can help navigate relationships with government officials—and they’ll also be the ones to remain on the front lines over the long haul.
Meanwhile, Radical’s partners in the Urgent initiative are deploying resources to Syria and Turkey to help meet physical and spiritual needs. Members at one small church in southern Turkey told Urgent that local officials have provided space for them to distribute food and other supplies, and they’re thankful for an opportunity for ministry they hope will continue.
On the Road to Damascus
Difficulties aren’t new to this region, including for the Christians who live there.
In the New Testament era, a Jewish leader named Saul famously persecuted the early church, and he planned to continue his harassment in Syria (Acts 8). The book of Acts recounts how Saul encountered the light of Christ on the road to Damascus.
That encounter transformed Saul, who became the chief leader of the early church, though he always considered himself the chief of sinners, saved by God’s grace (1 Timothy 1). Saul, who became known as the Apostle Paul, now visited Syria on missionary journeys, holding out the hope of the gospel that saved him.
More than two thousand years later, in another time of crisis for Syria, pray for Christians holding out the compassion of Christ and the gospel of hope that still brings eternal life.