In Syria, Islamists Are Near but Jesus Is Nearer

In Syria, Islamists Are Near but Jesus Is Nearer

Around the world, followers of Jesus experience opposition, marginalization and persecution. To encourage and strengthen the church worldwide, BGEA is holding the World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians May 10-13 in Washington, D.C. One of the scheduled participants is Pastor Edward Awabdeh of Damascus, Syria. Awabdeh’s story shows how Christian believers are faithfully ministering the Gospel amid grave danger as Syria reels from Islamist violence.

In September 2015, Islamists in Syria shot and killed a physician who was my dear friend and brother in Christ—just because he held strong to his faith and refused to deny Jesus Christ. He lived in northeast Syria and refused to escape and leave his people who badly needed his medical services and his spiritual ministry. The month before, a bombshell fell on our roof while my wife and I were home. Only by God’s grace and His mighty hand were our lives spared.

In the last five years, we in Syria have lived under the constant threats and bombs of Islamist terrorists. Where we live in Damascus is less than six miles from their strongholds.

Yet, when I stand behind the pulpit, as pastor of the Evangelical Christian Alliance Church, I feel excitement in bringing the only lasting medicine to needy people, the only message of hope to those in desperation. I have something that changes lives.

In addition to pastoring, I also serve as president of the Evangelical Christian Alliance denomination in Syria and Lebanon. The heaviest burden in my ministry is caring for our 17 churches in Syria amid the torturous conflict spreading across Syria. Dealing with suffering and pain—which has been frequent over the last five years—is possible only by the rich flood of grace and the divine intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It hasn’t always been so dangerous. I was born and raised in a small town nestled beside the Mediterranean Sea in western Syria. My family came from an old-rooted Christian tradition, the Greek Orthodox Church. Yet my grandfather came to know the Lord as his personal Savior through the missionary ministry of the American Christian and Missionary Alliance Church. My father was a pastor whom the Lord used far above and beyond his natural abilities. He helped found two churches—in the cities of Banias and Tartous—and later he founded and pastored the Evangelical Christian Alliance Church in Aleppo, until his retirement in 2011.

Although my parents were Christians, I wasn’t truly converted to Christ until my second year of college. I had wandered away from the faith in my teen years and had a deep desire to try the pleasures of the world. Toward the end of my second year of dental school, I grew weary of the tension pulling at me between a deep inner conviction of the Christian faith on the one hand, and the worldly life I was living that contradicted those core values on the other. I repented of my sin and committed my life to Christ then, and the resulting joy, peace and love were overwhelming.

Naturally, my family was strongly supportive of my spiritual change, but we were stigmatized in the larger community of non-Christians and even within the community of Orthodox Church members that we lived side by side with. To be an evangelical in the Orthodox community means you suffer some harsh accusations. Evangelicalism is viewed as a foreign, Western religion that is intruding upon the “traditional faith” of Eastern Orthodoxy.

But in recent months, the danger from radical Islamists has arrived in new and brutal ways. I had seen the extreme version of Islam before, when I lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years and worked as a dentist. We lived comfortably, yet we worshiped secretly and under the threat of punishment. Bibles were forbidden, so we had to smuggle them in.

The mindset of hard-line Islam came into clear view one day when a 10-year-old child at my clinic was flipping through a magazine and casually asked his father about a photo of some Westerners: “Dad, those are the infidels, right?” It was shocking how ingrained his thinking was with this mindset.

In Syria, some of the worst crimes against humanity were and still are being committed. Jihadist Islamists who seek to honor their god and execute his laws on earth are slaughtering whoever is not abiding by their rules.

In my hometown of Damascus—the city where Saul the persecutor was converted and became Paul the apostle—we walk on the street called “Straight” (Acts 9:11), being constantly reminded that no situation or person is too hard for our great loving Lord and Savior. We are taking up the challenge of sowing the Gospel in a dangerous place. Our church of 250-300 people has planted two other churches in the city because of displaced people who have fled here. Among these three congregations, there are now about 700 Christians, and we are supporting some 2,000 displaced families with a team of about 30 people.

We pray every morning that the Lord will give us the opportunity to help others and to be a blessing to them. God in His grace is empowering us amazingly. The sovereignty of God in everything is a great source of encouragement to us. We believe that all things are under His control. I don’t exaggerate in saying that in every prayer meeting we have, someone will say, “The Lord saved me this week from a bomb here, or a missile there.”

The Lord is working in our country. When we see and experience His hand intervening in our situation, this gives us great power and energy. We feel deeply privileged by God to be placed in Syria for such a time and for such a purpose. ©2017 Edward Awabdeh

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