The Church in Syria is alive and "more active than any time before" despite the ongoing civil war and Islamic State continuing to tighten its grip on the country, a church leader has told Christian Today.
Pastor Edward Awabdeh, who leads the Alliance Church in Damascus and oversees more than 20 other churches across Syria, said "the Lord is really touching hearts at this time of crisis. People are learning how to come humbly to Him, and we thank God."
Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes – some taking refuge in neighbouring countries, others becoming internally displaced. At least 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance within Syria itself, and 320,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, including nearly 12,000 children. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continue to battle rebels opposed to his rule, in addition to ISIS militants, and a ceasefire that came into effect on February 26 is said to be fragile. Syria is a country on its knees.
But it in this context that people are coming to faith, Pastor Edward told Christian Today while visiting the UK with persecution charity Open Doors. He is fiercly proud of his church in Damascus, and has no intention of leaving Syria, though thousands of Christians have fled.
"It's a great privilege being in Syria, and a very special privilege to be there at such a time," he said. "It's a very important time in the history of the Church and in the history of our country."
He and his wife, Rana, are "living our calling", he added. "This is very normal to us, and we absolutely don't feel it is a great sacrifice. It's the right thing to do. We are in a time of need; it's the time to stay, not the time to leave. Our people need us and they need the Church.
"It's the time for the Church to stay there and be more active and reach out to people and this gives us joy more than anything else in life."
It seems to be working. The Alliance Church has just planted another church, which opened two weeks ago near the city of Homs. A strategic city in western Syria, Homs was once dubbed the "capital of the revolution". Rebels were evacuated from the stronghold in December last year, and it is now under government control, but many parts of the city have been reduced to rubble.
And yet, people are meeting with God. "Jesus in his love and saving power, meets the people who are crushed and humbled in spirit," Pastor Edward said. "By his grace these things are happening. It is bringing people back to the reality of needing to rely on the Lord."
In war-torn Damascus, the capital of Syria, "the Church is very active," he said. Around 300 people attend Sunday services at his church every week, and meetings are held almost every day. Team of volunteers make home visits and carry out relief work, and similar activities are being carried out by churches across the country. "Most of the parts [of the Church in Syria] are strong, and more active than ever before," Pastor Edward said, adding that throughout history, the Church is shown to be strongest when Christians are persecuted.
"More people will come to know God and more people will come to know Christ and the Church will be revitalised by this powerful presence of the Lord," he said.
Yet hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled the country. Before the war, Christians made up around 10 per cent of Syria's population. In October 2015, the European Parliament said that about 40 per cent of these – some 700,000 Christians – had left.
Pastor Edward, however, insists there's still hope for the Church in the Middle East. "When I experience the work of the Lord and the hand of the Lord it's a great source of hope and encouragement to me," he said.
"Every time I stand to speak, I feel the sense of power that I have been given a great message for needy people. I have the healing medicine of the gospel that can reach the hearts of people and make a real change. That's very exciting to me, and I'm so thankful to the Lord for his grace."
ISIS may still be a great threat to Syria, and particularly to religious minorities, but he said it's vital that Christians continue to pray for the jihadis. "We want to be like Christ, and Christ told us to love our enemies," he said.
"That's very hard to do with ISIS because what they are doing is very evil and humane. But this is our challenge – we don't want the evil one to win this challenge because if we fall into the trap of hatred and revenge, then we've lost our power in this spiritual war. But we trust in the Lord, and encourage each other to stay in this forgiveness of heart and loving heart to all."
As for the future of Syria as a whole, Pastor Edward is also optimistic. He hopes that the ceasefire will hold, and the country will be able to start the process of restoration.
"We trust the Lord that we will be part of this rebuilding," he said. "The Church has a pivotal role to play now; to bring people together and to sow the seeds of forgiveness, love, acceptance and reconciliation. We see that as a serious future task for the Church."