Christians in Syria are facing a bleak Christmas amid the ongoing conflict.
The director of Barnabas Fund, Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, has just returned from Lebanon, where he met senior church leaders from Syria to discuss the difficulties facing Christians.
He heard reports of 86 Christians being used as a human shield by rebels in the Hadiya neighbourhood of Homs. It is believed that six have died during their captivity.
The Syrian government has said it is willing to help get the Christians out and the Free Syrian Army has said it would allow them to leave. However, Dr Sookhdeo said extremist elements of the rebel forces are refusing to let them go.
He said that many of the 60,000 Christians of Homs have fled the city and are now living in surrounding villages, which are struggling to cope with the influx.
"A pre-crisis population of 70,000 is now hosting at least 100,000 displaced people, who left their homes in a hurry during the summer, not expecting to be away for long," he said.
"They brought little with them, and especially they lack warm clothes for the winter."
Dr Sookhdeo heard from church leaders that Christians in Syria feel as though no one cares about them.
"The media does not show what happens to Christians. We have no hope for the future now. Our Christian area and our churches are destroyed. For Christians all is lost," said one leader.
Church leaders reported that around 30 Christians have been kidnapped since the start of the conflict and none of them have been returned.
In Aleppo, the situation has "dramatically deteriorated", said Dr Sookhdeo. A third of the buildings have been destroyed and large numbers of inhabitants have fled.
"Those who remain are existing in a state of desperate shortages – they lack electricity, fuel of all kinds, water, internet, phone connections, and even bread, which is the staple food of the Middle East," he said.
"Unemployment is around 80-82%. As the normal facilities of life disappear and the streets fill up with rubbish, a city slowly dies."
He continued: "A major wheat depot near Aleppo, which had held enough wheat to feed the city for 9-12 months, was occupied by the rebels, who sold the wheat to Turkey in order to obtain money to buy weapons.
"There are now signs of malnutrition, and some children have the distended stomachs we more often see in famine situations in Africa."
As the cost of heating fuel and gas soars, Dr Sookhdeo said people were resorting to burning their own furniture to stay warm.
Barnabas Fund has been distributing electric heaters and food to Christian families to help them get through the cold winter months.
The Armenian Christian population of Aleppo was around 40,000 to 50,000 before the crisis but at least 10,000 have left the country.
"Those Christians who remain are simply waiting for the fall of their beloved area and the loss of everything they have," said Dr Sookhdeo.
He warned that the rebel forces and Islamist extremists among them are targeting Christians and "want to see an end of the Christian presence in Syria".
"Whether they are deliberately targeted as Christians, or simply caught in the cross-fire, Syrian Christians are undoubtedly being eliminated from their homeland," said Dr Sookhdeo.
He continued: "In a few days we shall be rejoicing in the birth of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ. But it is no coincidence that in many churches, the very next day, 26th December, is chosen as the date to remember Stephen, the first Christian martyr. This year, let us remember also the martyrdom of the Church in Syria, which is happening before our very eyes. Please pray for them daily."
The UK Evangelical Alliance has issued a prayer for Syria this Christmas.
It was recently sent to the Alliance from a pastor in Syria and explains the complicated situation in the country. It calls for the UK Church to pray for the country and its people.
In a foreword to the prayer, general director of the Evangelical Alliance, Steve Clifford, said: "Christmas has always drawn families together, and as we gather to thank God for the gift of His son to us, let's not forget about our brothers and sisters in Syria.
"Syria has been largely closed to the outside world for many months, and things have deteriorated to the point where a humanitarian disaster is now unfolding. Recent reports suggest Christians are fleeing from the Middle East.
"This Christmas, please be encouraged to read some of this letter aloud in your churches, in your house groups and in your homes, so that God's people in Syria will know that they are not alone. We are their family. At this time when we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace, let's pray for them and stand with them against this storm of persecution and oppression."
The prayer reads:
My people are hurting...
It was much unexpected turmoil. Not even in our wildest dreams did we imagine the violence that is sweeping across the country now. For many years Syria enjoyed peace and stability in the heart of the unstable Middle East. We were a safe haven for our neighbours. We received displaced people and refugees from other countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Sudan, and even from Somalia and other far away areas. Yet now the violence pushed the host people out of their homes, fleeing for their lives. Many are displaced internally and many others are external refugees living in the most humiliating circumstances, deprived of even shelter, clean water, power, food, and medical care. Millions are not sleeping in their own beds, forced out of their homes to find themselves with their children homeless and living in public parks or in the wilderness. Others are not sure if they or their children and loved ones will see the light of a new day, tens of thousands of families lost loved ones: a child, a father, a mother, or a husband. Hundreds of the injured died for lack of medical care. Thousands of children go to bed terrified of the sound of shelling. Hundreds of thousands are in camps in neighbouring countries. My people are hurting. I can cry like Nehemiah because the walls of our cities are burnt and the people are in great trouble and disgrace; the only good news is that the church is moving whole-heartedly to help relieve some of the suffering, and the Lord is surely opening hearts to receive the gospel.
We thank God because the Church is united across the country in prayer...
Thank God we are the CHURCH of the living God. We are here in this country at such a time in history not just to mourn, though mourning is certainly proper. We are here for a divine reason; we trust and rely on our sovereign, loving Lord. We believe that we are in the midst of a spiritual war. In this country there are many who are much more effective than us militarily, politically, economically and socially, but none have the privilege of being effective in this spiritual battle like we are. We thank God because the Church is united across the country in prayer 24 hours a day, seven days a week; praying for the glory of God to dwell in the Church, for an end to the bloodshed, for peace in the country, for keeping the Church's faithful witness, to reach out to the suffering, to share the divine cure of the gospel, to speak the word of the Lord in all boldness. Each lost soul is, to us, an eternal loss. We pray that the evil powers of darkness will be defeated in our land, the values of false religion will be exposed for what they are and despised and rejected, and for many souls to come to know the love and forgiveness of Christ and to enjoy his saving grace.
The Church is active in relief work...
While revenge, power and hatred are the worshipped gods and the highest values in a dirty sectarian political fight, by God's grace we are sowing the seeds of love and forgiveness. The Church is active in relief work, trying to reach the suffering with the love of Christ. It is our battle to be a Church that upholds biblical values and keeps its spiritual focus where our communities are deeply divided along sectarian lines and severely polarised politically. Yet, counting on the Lord's power by the Holy Spirit, we know that we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.
We decided to adopt the motto of a Lebanese pastor who lived through the heat of the civil war in his country: "Our loyalty is to Christ, our submission is to the laws of the land, and our love is to all." While we can see and sense the evil powers spreading a dark cloud over the country, closing the door for the light of hope, we still trust our all-sovereign God "who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ". We see darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon His church and His glory appears over it.
We deeply appreciate the prayers of God's people everywhere; it is a rare time where the Church in Syria is feeling the true oneness of the body of Christ all over the globe. For this, we thank the Lord, for it is a great encouragement to us.
For peace in Syria and an end to bloodshed. For God's rich mercies on the suffering people.
For safety and protection for the churches and wisdom and vision for church leaders.
To empower the Church to reach out to the suffering, to share the divine cure of the gospel, and to speak the word of the Lord in all boldness.
That the Lord would send wise, God-fearing counsellors to the decision-makers in all parties in the country.
With love from Syria
To donate to Barnabas Fund's Syria appeal, visit donate barnabasfund.org/donations/?id=00-1032&appealCode=SYR%2012/12