From Christian Aid Mission
Contact: Amie Cotton, APR
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (ANS) -- Are the conversions real?
A Syrian refugee steps outside her makeshift housing. Syrian refugees are finding hope in the midst of suffering as they seek answers to their questions about Christ, the cross, and forgiveness.
That was the question posed by Cynthia Finley, president of Christian Aid Mission, after staff received another round of encouraging, if not glowing, reports from Middle East ministries that stated "thousands" of Syrians have committed their hearts to Jesus Christ.
Christian Aid Mission is a U.S. non-profit organization that assists hundreds of ministries overseas that have tens of thousands of indigenous missionaries in the field. These ministries are currently engaging more than 1,000 unreached people groups in over 100 countries around the world. Christian Aid Mission is a 60-year-old organization and one of the first to support native missionary ministries overseas.
Challenged to dig deeper, Christian Aid Mission staff contacted ministries they assist in the region, ministries that have invested wholeheartedly in outreach to war-weary Syrians through personal interaction.
Their gospel workers have done far more than hand out blankets and bags of groceries. They listened as a young widow with children described t he day a stray bullet flew through their kitchen window in Syria and struck her husband in the head. They consoled a 15-year-old orphan and helped him find safe passage into Eastern Europe, where he can receive an education. Others have sat shivering with refugee families in their threadbare tents as they offered prayers for God to restore their once beautiful country.
So Christian Aid Mission asked them more pointed questions. Are Syrians becoming "rice Christians" who are only showing an interest in Jesus in order to receive food and clothing? What are some of the indicators that they are true believers? Are they evangelizing others?
Their responses, sometimes answered in detail, offer insight into the surprising openness of Syrian Muslims to hear the gospel, read the Bible, and come to faith in Christ.
From what the ministry leaders told Christian Aid Mission, it is true. Literally thousands of Syrians from traditional Muslim backgrounds are turning to Jesus Christ. It's not an inflating of the numbers, nor is it an optimistic estimate.
Here are some responses from three of the ministries that Christian Aid Mission assists in the region-headquartered in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.
How many Syrians are becoming true believers in Christ?
Turkey: I know there are thousands of them. A lot of organizations are helping Syrian refugees. In our country hundreds of people have accepted the Messiah.
Iraq: We do not have a specific number, but I would say in Iraq about 2,000 to 2,500. According to the reports we receive, we approximate 10,000 Muslim families have converted both in Syria and in countries around Syria. The smallest family number is four people.
There are so many Syrians that are getting saved and becoming followers of Jesus Christ. All the ministries in the area are doing a great job. Ministering to refugees has an easy harvest available; we only need workers and tools. . We cannot deny that the focus now is largely on Syrian refugees, but the reason for that is the windows of opportunity may not be repeated and the doors might close soon.
Lebanon: I would say there are thousands in Syria and the surrounding countries that are becoming Christians. I cannot speak for other ministries, but there is a great and awesome work among the Syrians. In our small circle of work we have at least hundreds that come regularly to church meetings, especially Friday nights and Sundays.
Are Syrians becoming "rice Christians," only showing an interest in Christ in order to receive food and clothing?
Turkey: Some of them may be Christian to receive food and clothing, or may be seen as Christian, but we cannot say this for all of them. Most of them accept the Messiah when they see God's love. Even if they come for the food and clothing, we see that God changes their hearts.
Iraq: No, we make sure that the decision is made willingly, without putting any pressure on the person.
Lebanon: Of course a lot would come first seeking help. This is very normal in situations like this. But to say that they become Christians so they get food and clothing, I don't think so.
How are Christians approaching outreach to Syrian Muslims in the right way? In the wrong way?
Turkey: When Lazarus died, Jesus hugged Martha and Mary and cried. First He shared their sadness. He didn't give a lecture about theology. Also, it is not right for us to go and say to those people, "Take the Bible and become Christians." First, we have to show them that we love them without condition. Then they will wonder, want to join us, and search. But as we have heard, there are some people leaving Bibles in front of their houses and saying nothing. This is wrong.
Iraq: The right way to do it is to help fund and equip the local believers to do the job because they know the language, social customs, and traditions.
Lebanon: Some Christian churches will not give any food package if the people do not pray with them. I have personally seen this. I cannot say there is a right or wrong way. Working in God's kingdom is a calling. If God leads a person, group, or church toward an outreach, I am sure they have their ways [of doing things]. We may not agree with each other on how things are done, but the most important thing is the end result. Syrians are coming to Christ.
Of the Syrians that you are helping, and who are showing an interest in Christ, what makes you believe they are truly becoming Christians? What would indicate to you that a Syrian Muslim had definitely become a Christian?
Turkey: We cannot know exactly the truth, but we can understand it through their behavior. They read the Bible in their own language, even when people from the church are not around them. They prepare questions and ask the pastor. They think of God when they are alone and they try to tell about it to their relatives in Syria. However, we don't know whether they will live as a Muslim or not when they are back in their country. But as I said before, the ones I see even until now are sincere.
What would indicate to us that a Syrian Muslim had become a Christian would be:
1. Women taking their scarves off.
2. Letting their kids join the Bible lessons. People don't let their kids learn a belief they don't accept, since kids are ready to learn easily.
3. Giving up some habits in their lives, like drugs and lying. And they confess their sins.
Iraq: God knows people's hearts to start with, but we determine they are Christians by:
1. Professions of faith-The decision to follow Christ in these circumstances means the person has sentenced himself to death and makes himself likely to be killed at any moment. So they know very well the consequences.
2. The amount of questions they are asking about our Christian faith and comparing it to Islam
3. Their involvement in the church attendance and church activities
4. The desire to study the Bible and memorize it
5. The willingness to share their faith with others and talk about Jesus and His miracles in their lives
6. Involving their kids in the children's programs, reading and doing Bible homework
7. The desire to obey the Lord in baptism and in sharing the Lord's Supper
Lebanon: When they become followers of Jesus you can see a huge difference in their lives. . The way they share their faith sometimes would help us determine how they are thinking. After all, God looks inside the heart and knows all the details. We also can determine [their heart] because last year we had more than 1,200 baptisms. Do you think a Muslim would get baptized just to get a food package?
Of the Syrian Muslims in your ministry who are showing an interest in Christ, what percentage do you believe will be following Christ ten years from now?
Turkey: 30 percent of them.
Iraq: We are working on a discipleship plan that teaches every believer to teach others and make disciples. If our plans work as we hope they will, we expect 5,000 people this year and a 10 percent to 20 percent increase each year.
Lebanon: I don't know the future, but in my experience a lot will continue the walk with Jesus. But it is also very important to provide training so they will grow in their faith and not only stay with what they know.
Are there Syrian Muslims openly identifying with Christ?
Turkey: Yes, there are.
Iraq: We do not recommend this for now, especially in the unsafe refugee camps or between members of large clans, but we see that more with the refugees who resettled in European countries.
Lebanon: Oh yes, we have a lot that would speak openly and a lot who are now under threat because they were open about their faith in Jesus.
Are Syrian Muslims asking for baptism?
Turkey: Yes, I have been baptizing them.
Iraq: Yes, so many, and local churches are secretly baptizing the new believers.
Lebanon: I have baptized a lot myself this year.
Are there Syrians who have become Christians and are now doing evangelism and/or leading Bible studies?
Turkey: They are the ones doing evangelism.
Iraq: We are very close to that stage with people from Muslim backgrounds, although some Christian Syrians are already doing that and taking leadership in more effectively reaching their own people.
Lebanon: Yes, there are some in evangelism and others are in Bible school as well.
Are Muslim religious leaders watching the Syrians to see which ones are attending your meetings and meeting with your workers?
Iraq: Yes! And it's extremely dangerous in Syria due to the lack of security. We also get threats sometimes in the refugee camps, which we deal with in a loving Christian way.
Lebanon: Yes, but this is also because of the Syrian regime and how they function. The problem in Syria is that everyone works for the government, and I would expect that people would tell on each other or do whatever it takes to save themselves.
What effect has the Syrian conflict had on the Christians (evangelical, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, etc.) from Syria?
Iraq: In the conflict areas, a very negative impact. They are at risk of genocide or Islamization at gunpoint. That's if they were not already killed during the best of circumstances, just for being Christians.
Lebanon: This was a big eye opener for everyone to see that there is a lot of work to be done. Although it is not easy for Christians to work together, they all agree that it is an overwhelming situation for all of the country and it is affecting everyone.
If you remember when the war started, we hardly had anyone working among the Syrians. Some thought we were crazy. They thought the war would last a few days and that's it. I remember how hard it was for us to work among the Syrians when others would not allow us.