Not only is the call to differentiation a personal challenge but a societal one as well.
Even reformist movements, such as the Arab Spring which first began to spread across the Middle East in March 2011, can fail to represent and cherish the religious diversity in those countries.
I attended a moving presentation a couple nights ago by a Syrian Christian, Huda Kandalaft of Ottawa, who spoke about the plight of Christian minorities in predominantly Arab states such as Syria. She showed us video of the destruction of various places of worship in her home town, Homs, including Presbyterian, Catholic and Orthodox churches. Huda described how the home of her childhood was bombed, and when she received the tragic news of the brutal murder of her cousin in the streets.
Christians there are a minority. They make up about 10% of the population of Syria. Under the Assad regime, while the laws prohibited proselytization, churches and mosques co-existed in relative peace. Huda told us how in Homs she grew up walking past the mosque across the street from her church. As long as the faithful kept their activities within their walls, there was religious stability in society.
Not being permitted to express faith in the public realm is not religious freedom. At least compared to what we in Canada have celebrated as a multicultural society. We still live in a nation where Christians are free to exercise their conscience in public spaces.
But some elements in the Arab Spring movements call for zero tolerance of religious diversity and the squashing out of the minorities. Christians in Syria feel that the opposition movement trying to topple their government may mean that the extreme Islamists will take power and not allow Christians to live their faith and even worship God in their country.
It’s a very complicated situation for Christians there. Many flee the violence. The population of Homs, for example, has been depleted. Only a handful of Christians remain. They don’t hold regular worship services anymore. So, what do they do?
One place is a nursing home caring for the elderly. It is run by the Roman Catholic nun and priest. Another is a school for all children who still live in Homs. In the basement of an Orthodox church members teach children the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. Christians are still living out their call to share the love of Jesus even as they are so desperate in need.
These are signs of hope. In the care of the weak and vulnerable. In the faces of Syrian children.
In a recent phone call to the people in the Homs nursing home they were asked, “What can we do for you?”; they answered, “Pray for us.”
Two thousand years ago a man by the name of Saul was on a dusty road to Damascus in Syria, “breathing threats” against the Christians there (Acts 9:1-20). He job was to persecute the Christians in a time when any threat to the dominant political and religious powers of the day was stomped out. Diversity was not tolerated, to say the least.
Yet, on that road to Damascus, the power of God not only effectively stopped Saul from his evil intent, but turned it on its head. “I am Jesus, whom you persecute”. A voice from the whirlwind brought Saul to his knees.
In a moment of dramatic conversion, Saul’s heart was turned around. His journey continued to Damascus. But now, to be a champion of the Christian movement. His letters that form most of the New Testament testify to the profound theological legacy for Christians throughout the ages.
Is there hope for Christians persecuted in the world today? Even though, amidst the violence, destruction and death, it’s difficult to see — we do believe in a God who brings life out of death, new beginnings out of old patterns, hope and joy out of despair. We believe in a God who can turn the hearts of even the most frightening threat.
Therefore, we can pray for Syria, in confidence and faith.
Read“A Call to Prayer: Syria” in Glad Tidings, March/April 2013, by Huda Kandalaft