In the old city of Aleppo, Syria, Ibrahim Nseir stands on the pile of rubble that used to be his church. The building where his congregation worshiped is now broken stones and dust. It’s a sunny day, the bright sky a stark contrast to the destruction on the ground.
Though its church building has crumbled, the faith of the National Presbyterian Church of Aleppo has held strong through seven years of war.
In its new building in another part of the city, the congregation fills the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. The conflict has actually helped the church grow stronger.
“Because of the crisis, the people started to regather and rethink their priorities,” Nseir said.
Churches in Syria, like Nseir’s, have been strong partners for Mennonite Central Committee in helping provide relief during the conflict.
They reach out to their communities and provide support to those in need, both Christians and Muslims.
“During the crisis, people forgot their religion and remembered one thing: We are all human beings,” Nseir said.
His congregation is one of the churches helping distribute MCC comforters and kits, and cash allowances coordinated through the Fellowship of Middle East Evangelical Churches.
Recipients include a family — not named here due to security concerns — with three children, who rely on the cash allowances, the equivalent of about $50 a month. In 2013 their son was kidnapped and held for ransom. The family sold their house to get him back. The allowance covers about half of their monthly needs, paying for things like medication or electricity.
“I always thank God for the ministry of the Presbyterian church of Aleppo,” the wife and mother said. “And I ask the Lord to bless those who are giving. The assistance is sustaining us.”
For people who have lived through seven years of war and continue to see a country full of conflict, the support also brings hope. In distributing relief, Nseir tells those in Aleppo it is a sign that “God is doing a lot in the country, God is not absent.”
A light to move forward
In Homs, Bishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh of the Syrian Orthodox church said the role for the church in this crisis is to give people hope, strength and a light to move forward. Providing the community with much-needed supplies helps provide that hope.
The Syrian Orthodox Church distributes MCC monthly cash allowances and provides financial support for orphans at the SOC orphanage and their host families after the orphanage was damaged. MCC also helps the church provide families with winter supplies, like heaters and fuel, and in some locations the churches help with MCC’s monthly food-distribution project.
Bishop Selwanos said the partnership the Syrian Orthodox Church has with MCC means the church can meet the needs of the community.
“This light helps them cross step by step through this dark time,” he said. “Our hope came from [MCC]. Because of you we bring hope to others.”
Bringing life back
The Syrian Orthodox Church itself has been damaged by the conflict. The church in Homs and the orphanage on the same grounds were heavily damaged in 2012 as an opposition group behind the church traded fire with government forces on the other side. The back of the church, sanctuary roof, orphanage, courtyard and Sunday school rooms were destroyed.
The church buildings have been rebuilt, and the congregation continues to worship together. Their faith remains strong, and Bishop Selwanos is optimistic for the future.
“We have a big hope that Syria will be set free and be peaceful again,” he said.
The support the church provides with MCC helps them keep that hope alive. Knowing that support comes from other Christian churches around the world is especially meaningful.
The head of Um al-Nizar Relief and Development Committee, the development arm of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Homs, met with MCC staff inside Syria earlier this year. He said that by working together, MCC and the Syrian Orthodox church had become family. He wanted to thank the many individuals and churches around the world who support MCC’s relief work in Syria.
“These people’s generosity and donations are the key to bringing back life to Syria,” he said.