This is the first of what I hope will be a regular posting. Yesterday, I was able to chat on the phone with a pastor friend in Aleppo in Syria. He is the pastor of a community that has witnessed in the city for over 150 years. But Aleppo is on the front line of the appalling conflict in Syria (as this helpful, interactive map demonstrates).

It was remarkable to be able to chat with almost crystal clear clarity, even if for only a few minutes – despite the fact that he lives with his family right in the heart of a war zone.

Having received regular newsletters, I’d been worried by the lack of correspondence for weeks. Then out of the blue, he was able to send a Christmas & New Year email last week.

They live only 500 metres from the frontline with the rebels. But their perception is that government forces seem to have turned a corner. It is impossible really to get our heads around this conflict, not least because it seems that neither side is especially attractive. However, for Christians living in Syria (in common with many others in the region), it’s clear which side they prefer: the one most likely to protect them.

As William Dalrymple recently pointed out, the Arab Spring has led to a Middle Eastern Christian Winter. Some of the rebels in Syria are linked with more fundamentalist and Islamist groups – who have clear anti-Christian & -Semitic agendas.

So here are a few things he was able to tell me of the conditions so many people are enduring in this ancient and beautiful city.

  • aleppo old town printHe has said he hasn’t been able to travel further than a square kilometre or so for more than a year. The real fear is of Christians being abducted and killed by rebels.
  • On many days in the last year, they had no electricity, and thus couldn’t pump water or easily keep warm in winter. They have a rainwater tank on their roof, which has been a lifesaver of course. But things were really tough at the end of last year: no power throughout December. Internet and phones are therefore erratic – but they were working well yesterday.
  • Many buildings have been destroyed or badly damaged. Amazingly, their church building is currently OK, despite being so close to the frontline. However it has a wooden roof and this has many holes in it. They do limited repairs when they can – but the dangers are real.
  • Shops have only been able to sell basics – though in the last couple of weeks, things have improved on this front a little.
  • Many of the younger people left the city and country when they could months ago.
  • Serop’s wife Alina is a dentist  – and she has been working in a charity clinic in the town. One of their urgent tasks is to distribute powdered milk to children – she encountered one who had not had a cup of milk for at least a year.

Battle of aleppo - Jan 2014 LiveLeak-dot-com-f64_1389572276-8551_632062306839438_273543663_n

We didn’t even begin to talk about the horrors of modern urban warfare and the psychological impact of constant danger and uncertainty (see this updated map from Liveleak).

But the thing that resounded in my mind for hours later was his resolute confidence that, in the midst of this horror, the God (after whom their church is named) is REAL: Emmanuel, which of course means “God with us”.

God is with these people … even in Aleppo. And many are sticking with Him … even in Aleppo.

Following the orthodox calendar, they celebrated Christmas on 6th January. But this is what he said about the day:

It was a miracle, Mark. On Christmas Day, it was very cold, but still we had around 400 people in church – and I think for 90-95% of them, it had been necessary to walk to church. And yet they were all there – to celebrate our God who is Emmanuel.

This is the sort of trust that can still pray in the midst of suffering, just as the psalmist did all those centuries ago:

Psalm 120
A song of ascents. 
I call on the LORD in my distress,
and he answers me.
Save me, LORD,
from lying lips
and from deceitful tongues.

Too long have I lived
among those who hate peace.
I am for peace;
but when I speak, they are for war.

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