Fatima, an Iraqi woman who had fled atrocities committed by the Islamic State (IS), was drawn to the sound of singing in a tent in a refugee camp in Dohuk, a city in the Kurdish region of Iraq. She approached cautiously. Though embarrassed when the Christians worshipping inside saw her, she came closer and asked if she could enter and listen to what they were saying. By the time the meeting finished at 4 a.m., she was on her way to embracing Christ as her Saviour and asked if she could bring friends and family to the next meeting. Fatima, her husband and three daughters put their trust in Jesus for their salvation, and within a few weeks her involvement led to another 60 families making the same commitment.
“Tent churches are going on everywhere,” said one ministry leader. “Last week we had 68 families surrender their lives to the Lord. With their large needs and difficult situations they are going through, they thank God for the indwelling of Christ in their hearts. Twelve of those families were Muslim.” In addition, 200 children who received Bibles and colouring materials prayed to accept Jesus into their hearts. Near Amerli, which Islamic State fighters besieged for more than 2 months before Kurdish and Iraqi forces aided by US warplanes drove them out on September 1, the ministry leader’s team encountered people in need of water, food and medicine.
In the northern city of Erbil, the leader’s team met with displaced Yazidis, a predominantly Kurdish ethnic group that practices a mix of Zoroastrian, Islamic and Christian rituals, who suffered the slaughter of an estimated 500 of their members at the hands of IS. Some 130,000 Yazidis had fled to Erbil or farther and north to Dohuk. “Our ministry to them was filled with tears and broken hearts as we heard stories about abducted children and women and the slaughter of men,” the team leader said. “They asked us if God even exists for this to be allowed to happen. It was very difficult, but the Lord has given us grace in their sight. They asked us to come back and took all our Bibles ‘in secret along with tracts and colouring books.’
Samir, his wife and two little children are still living in Aleppo. But for how long will this Christian family be willing to continue there? “We are afraid,” Samir admits. “Islamic State (IS) is coming closer and closer. We hear daily explosions, shootings. The explosions become bigger and louder.” Samir works in a children’s ministry in one of the churches in Aleppo, a job which he says he can “still do” despite the circumstances, simply because they are used to it. But his mind still wanders to the life the family could have away from the constant bombing and threats. “To be honest, we think about leaving Syria more than we did before,” he says. “The situation is difficult.”
“I think more than half of our church has left. Most of them dream of going to Europe. Almost every day I say goodbye to someone from the church. The work we did before with eight volunteers, we now do with four. We lack leaders, they’re gone. It’s very hard to continue doing the work.” Still, even though the situation in the biggest city in Syria is challenging, Samir is planning a children and youth camp in Aleppo. It will be in a safe location away from the church building, which is too close to the fighting. As he says, “they need to have fun to forget all the terrible things that happen around them.”
“We expect some 70 participants, most of them children,” Samir adds. “Children need to have a good time together; they need to play.” There is no denying the situation in Syria remains immensely difficult. Having spoken with a wide range of church leaders of local churches and contacts, Open Doors now estimates around 25 per cent of Syria’s 1.8 million Christians have left the country since the civil war began in 2011. By the end of August this year, the number of refugees from Syria in surrounding countries was over three million – but with no organisations (including the United Nations) registering religious status, it is impossible to tell exactly how many Christians are amongst them.
We continue to support our brothers and sisters in Syria. Open Doors currently assists local churches by providing 9000 families with food, medicine, rent subsidies and other supplies – 2000 of those families are in Aleppo alone. We are also offering leadership and trauma awareness training, providing empowerment training to church leaders to help them become involved in the huge relief operation to internally displaced Syrians and also supplying Christian literature. And we are constantly reminded that God is at work. Although believers like Samir are dismayed at how many are leaving the church, there are also millions of internally displaced Syrians on the move within the country.
* for the brave Syrian believers who have decided to stay in the country. Pray that they will be strengthened by the Lord to do their work.
* that many people may see the love of the Lord through the work of the brothers and sisters who serve in churches and assist internally displaced Syrians. Praise God for those coming to know Him through His believers at this turbulent time.
* for wisdom for those deciding whether to stay in Syria and Iraq or leave for another country. Pray they will lean on God for answers and stay firm in their faith.
SAUDI ARABIA, IRAN AND “CALIPH IBRAHIM’ VIE FOR POWER
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi says he’s the “leader of Muslims everywhere.” He proclaimed his eminent status in an announcement in July. al-Baghdadi now goes by the title “Caliph Ibrahim,” presumably to draw on the biblical Abraham whom Muslims refer to as the patriarch of Islam. The Sunni-Shia split in Islam occurred after Mohammed died without naming a successor, or “caliph.” The two branches of Islam formed after disagreement on who was fit to take the job. This has defined the battling sides ever since. Now “Caliph Ibrahim” is using wordplay and trying to unify terrorist groups to prove his legitimacy as caliphate. A true caliph carries authority, as dictated in Sharia law, to declare jihad in which Muslims worldwide must participate.
Saudi Arabia’s apprehension over emerging “caliph” al-Baghdadi is valid. They are also concerned with the threat from radical Sunni militants. The Saudis overcame an al-Qaeda insurgency in their own homeland a decade ago. Islamic State is straddling the border of Iraq and Syria. As regional superpower, Saudi Arabia shares a 500-mile desert border with Iraq. This is where IS seized towns and cities in a swift and brutal takeover in June. IS may become a threat to Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state. This fuels the potential alliance Saudi Arabia may forge with Iran, a Shia state. Iran also vies for regional power. Whether regional unity resolves the IS takeover, hope lingers for the reconciliation of Iran and Saudi Arabia.
* for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to seek God’s wisdom during this time of political and military uncertainty.
* that peace and cooperation will unfold between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Pray this peace spills over to the region
* that the “caliph” and other regional leaders recognize King Jesus as their Lord and Saviour.
AZERBAIJAN AND ARMENIA SQUARE OFF OVER BORDER DISPUTE
The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh goes back to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The border region became part of Muslim dominated Azerbaijan, but the region’s predominantly Armenian population sought unification with Armenia which is a Christian majority nation. This conflict led to the 1991-1994 war that left more than 25,000 people dead. Technically a cease-fire has existed since 1994, but in fact it has been violated repeatedly. The two countries have no diplomatic relations and are technically still at war due to the border conflict. Armenians are forbidden to enter Azerbaijan.
Despite the cease-fire, up to 40 clashes between the two countries are reported each year. In July, Azerbaijani armed forces renewed attacks against Armenian defence positions. Caught in the middle are the residents of the area. They have asked the Red Cross to get a secure agreement from both sides not to violate the cease-fire during the summer harvest season. In early August violence escalated, and 19 soldiers were killed. Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with presidents of both countries in Sochi, Russia to mediate talks between the two. Neither side is willing to cede what it considers non-negotiable principles. Innocent citizens of the disputed area are increasingly victims of the conflict.
* for the residents of this disputed border region who live in daily danger as they try to carry on their daily lives.
* for Christian Armenians to cry out to God for protection against those who try to harm them
* for the presidents of Azerbaijan and Armenia to agree upon a solution that will end this decades-long dispute.
Editors note: Publication of this story does not indicate the Australian Prayer Network’s support of the concept. It is published purely to inform.
Berlin thinks it is making religious history as Muslims, Jews and Christians join hands to build a place where they can all worship. The House of One, as it is being called, will be a synagogue, a church and a mosque under one roof. An architecture competition has been held and the winner chosen. The striking design is for a brick building with a tall, square central tower. Off the courtyard below will be the houses of worship for the three faiths – the synagogue, the church and the mosque. It is to occupy a prominent site – Petriplatz – in the heart of Berlin. The location is highly significant, according to one of the three religious leaders involved, Rabbi Tovia Ben Chorin.
“From my Jewish point of view the city where Jewish suffering was planned is now the city where a centre is being built by the three monotheistic religions which shaped European culture,” he told the BBC. Can they get on? “We can. That there are people within each group who can’t is our problem but you have to start somewhere and that’s what we are doing.” The imam involved, Kadir Sanci, sees the House of One as “a sign, a signal to the world that the great majority of Muslims are peaceful and not violent”. It’s also, he says, a place where different cultures can learn from each other. Each of the three areas in the House will be the same size, but of a different shape, architect Wilfred Kuehn points out.
WORLD DAY OF PRAYER FOCUSED ON THE EBOLA OUTBREAK CALLED FOR SUNDAY 12th OCTOBER
African Churches have called for Christians across the world to set aside Sunday, October 12, to focus prayer on the Ebola outbreak, which to date has claimed more than 3,000 lives across West Africa. The prayer focus aims to create awareness of the deadly Ebola virus and to ask God for divine intervention to stop epidemics raging in some countries, prevent their spread to others, to “sanctify” medications given to patients to speed up healing, and to protect the lives of health workers and other care givers. The Churches issuing the call represent many tens of millions of Christians in Africa and more than 50 member bodies including conventions, unions, churches and institutions.
PASTORS WHO STAY IN WAR-TORN MIDDLE EAST FINDING GREAT HARVEST
When ISIS overruns a village in Syria or Iraq, or even a city of two million people such as Mosul, many will flee, creating a huge flow of refugees. But a few Christian pastors have made the courageous decision to stay behind and minister to Christians and Muslims. “They all know they’re at risk, especially if they’re a visible leader,” says Stephen Van Valkenburg, Middle East director for Christian Aid Mission. He recently received a heartbreaking report from Aleppo, Syria that underscores the danger. Pastor Imad, who chose to remain for the purpose of sharing Christ, was shot in the head by extremists two weeks ago. His wife has disappeared, likely kidnapped. They both came to Christ from Muslim backgrounds.
“That man could have left the country if he’d wanted to,” Van Valkenburg notes. “Like other Syrian pastors and Christian workers, he had connections and could have found a safe way out.” Van Valkenburg doesn’t begrudge those who leave, often to protect their families, but he has great esteem for those who make the conscious decision to remain behind. “They stay because they have an opportunity to share Christ like never before. For years they’ve prayed for a spiritual breakthrough and now they are seeing it. Their friends and neighbours have never been so open to the gospel.”
Van Valkenburg has received remarkable reports from Mosul, which was captured by ISIS on June 10th. Over 150,000 people fled the city in advance of the marauders. “I thought all the Christian ministries left, but there are still workers there,” he notes. “They say this is the greatest time ever, because there is such a great harvest there now.” Aleppo, the largest city in Syria, has been under siege since July of 2012 and over 13,000 have died. “There are quite a few Christians left in the city,” Van Valkenburg says. They report it is difficult to live under the war-torn conditions, with water and electricity in short supply and sky-high prices for basic commodities. “People have been shot over a single piece of fruit.”
“When they try to bring in food, the convoys are bombed,” he says. “Nobody is safe in Syria. They stay for the love of Christ.” Many of these Christian leaders have the attitude that the captain should be the last one to leave a sinking ship. They also point to the teaching of Jesus about the Good Shepherd, who stays with his flock when the wolf attacks, while the hired hand runs away. The rewards have been enormous, despite the costs . “This is what they’ve prayed for for years,” he notes. “They are seeing fruit; they are seeing people coming to Christ. Now they see this openness like never before.”
“I think of a pastor who knows that he and his family could be killed at any moment. He fears what will happen to his wife and three daughters if they are captured. But there are 100,000 internally displaced people living near him who need the gospel. His ministry is expanding. He is seeing fruit far greater than he could have ever imagined four years ago.” Muslims are receiving prayers in Jesus’ name from these pastors. “Every ministry I talk to says their workers are praying for people in the name of Jesus Christ and none of them objects. They know they are Christians,” Van Valkenburg says.
“I think of Christian workers in Syria who are reaching thousands, even though they must travel through dangerous areas. They are sharing the gospel with Muslims in Islamic areas. An ISIS caliphate isn’t keeping the gospel out.” Some of the gospel workers ministering to Syrian refugees are working 18 hours a day, seven days a week. “They endure this, despite personal pressures, because they want to honour Christ and reap this great harvest. They’ve been praying for Muslims, and suddenly there are Muslims receptive to the gospel all around them.” “This work is not for the faint-hearted,” he notes. “Through suffering and perseverance, these Christians are maturing in faith, having to trust God far more than ever before. They were serving in Islamic areas before the Arab Spring, but never under this much pressure and in this much danger. They are being tested in ways we never get tested in the West.”
“Let’s pray for our suffering brothers and sisters, for God to bring terrorists to Himself, for the eyes of millions to be opened to the Lord Jesus Christ…for receptive hearts. Only the message of the gospel can change hearts. “And let’s intercede for these courageous workers—the last ones to leave. Christians serve the most important function in the Middle East because only our message can produce true peace.”