'God didn't leave us,' says pastor who chose to stay in war-torn Syria

Pastor George on his roof top in Qamishli(Photo: Open Doors UK & Ireland)

When civil war started in Syria, Pastor George Moushi didn't flee. He stayed when bombing meant neighbours had to run to his house in Qamishli for cover.

And he stayed again when Covid-19 saw people hide in their homes from the silent killer while being threatened with financial ruin and starvation.

He stayed because, along with others at Alliance Church, he wanted to make God's love evident by reaching out to people in his community at their greatest time of need.

Since the crisis began, around a million Christians have fled Syria. It has meant that the number of believers there has dropped from 1.8 million to just 800,000.

Nine years into the war in 2019, when Turkey was dropping bombs onto Qamishli, Pastor Georges hometown, he questioned again whether to stay.

Turkish Armed Forces had launched its offensive, Operation Peace Spring, to the north of the country where it wanted to create a 30km long corridor or 'safe zone' free of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which it saw as a threat.

"People were killed, injured, houses and shops were destroyed," said Pastor George.

"When the Turkish entered Syria, there was a lot of fear," he said. "At that time, many families were afraid to send their children to school."

Pastor George said he would remain if there was even one person coming to his church.(Photo: Open Doors UK & Ireland)

His ambivalence about staying put was compounded by the fact that he was a father of small children himself.

"The Turkish army could do horrific things, they could harm women, rob houses and cause a lot of damage," he said.

"A lot of the people from Qamishli left for other places in Syria.

"We held a meeting with the members of our church. I wanted to take a decision together with the church, to stay or leave. We prayed and asked God for wisdom.

"At the same time, I tried to find a ready means of transport to be able to leave.

"It was so hard, what should I advise, when I would say they had to stay, would they blame me if something would have happened to them?

"We prayed and after that they were invited say what they wanted, about sixty per cent wanted to stay.

"I had already taken some measures for those who wanted to stay, we had bought extra food and other things. But I had also checked with churches in other cities to see if they could receive us when we would need to flee.

"I wanted to support both groups, those who stayed and those who left.  But for me, I didn't want to leave if there still was a member of the church in Qamishli.

Around a quarter of the people attending Pastor George's church are converts from Islam(Photo: Open Doors UK & Ireland)

"We knew we could expect anything of those groups fighting with the Turkish army. My people should know that there is a pastor in Qamishli helping the people in need."

And despite the incredible hardships that Syrians face, the church is growing and not just from the existing Christian population either.

"The war made people think about their life," said Pastor George. "They ask 'where will I go after I die?'

"It made people from Muslim backgrounds question their faith.

"When the church started visiting them, they began to understand about Gods love. We show them that God is love and that God loves people.

"The seats that became empty as people fled the war were filled again.

"God didn't leave us; a lot of people accepted Christ and were added to the church. Although the war was so awful, God turned ashes into beauty, a lot of people came to Christ.

"And the church is now growing more widely. There have been a lot of Muslims coming to Christ, in our church 25 to 30 per cent are from a Muslim background."

Alliance Church began its relief work in 2012. Since then it has helped hundreds of displaced Syrians fleeing violence and prayed and helped provide for people whose family members were killed. Now, supported by charity Open Doors UK & Ireland, the church remains very much a centre of hope for people suffering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We gave people food and washing detergent coupons," said Pastor George.

"Our church saw that now was a time to stand by the people, support them and show Jesus' love in difficult times.

"The need is not just material. Many people are weary and afraid, so I prayed with them."

Open Doors Standing Strong Online 2020 event, which features stories of courageous faith from persecuted Christians around the world, takes place on Saturday, October 3 at 7.45pm.