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Today in the Mission Yearbook

In civil war and economic collapse, Syrian ministers find hope in the Gospel, partnerships


Latakia pastor says U.S. sanctions are a ‘knee on our neck’

July 13, 2021

The Rev. Salam Hanna stands at the door of the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria. (Photo by Elmarie Parker)

At the Presbyterian Church of Latakia, Syria, the Rev. Salam Hanna ministers to people who have endured nine years of civil war and, recently, sanctions that have led to the worst economic crisis the nation has faced in a century.

“We rediscovered the Gospel as being a message of hope in the middle of crisis,” Hanna says of ministering during war. “The Gospels, especially Mark, were written at a time when the Christian community was going through turmoil and crisis. We try to bring that hope of the Gospel into our daily life, to say that things will end. Crisis will end and never continue endlessly. Christ is present with us.

“He’s in the midst of the ship, where we face fear from inside and wind and waves from outside. He is with us and will calm our fears and the waves and winds that hit our ship. He will provide us our daily bread. Even though we might have five loaves and two fishes, it will feed the 5,000.”

Food insecurity is one of the crises Syrians face in the wake of international sanctions against the government of President Bashar al-Assad for human rights violations against the Syrian people and cooperation with the governments of Turkey and Iran.

The United States’ Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, signed in December 2019 and taking effect in June, was meant to punish al-Assad. But Hanna and the Rev. Joseph Kassab, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon (NESSL), say the sanctions are falling hardest on the people of Syria.

“These are two neighboring countries that have been mutually reliant for a long time,” said the Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. “Our synod is both countries, but both countries are in different ways suffering terrible challenges that are very difficult to overcome economically and politically and in terms of exacerbation of the religious tensions.”

Last fall, Hanna was speaking at a partner consultation of the Synod of Syria and Lebanon, which included representatives from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and Presbyterian World Mission. He invoked an image that shocked the United States last spring and resonated around the world.

“The sanctions by the superior powers are like a knee on our neck,” Hanna said, recalling the death of George Floyd on May 25 when Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes.

“I am talking about people who cannot breathe because they are not able to live. They are suffering escalation of crisis,” Hanna said. “They are suffering a shortage of fuel. They are suffering the loss of electricity and power. We feel sometimes we cannot breathe.”

Syrian citizens are facing skyrocketing prices for necessities including fuel and are suffering from food insecurity, medicine shortages, currency depreciation, increased suicide rates and other crises due in part to sanctions by the United States and other countries. Electric service is interrupted as much as 16 hours a day.

“Are they punishing the people?” Hanna asks. “This is mainly my question. Are they punishing the Syrian people, the pacifist people who didn’t involve themselves in any struggle, the Christians who stayed despite all the fighting between the Syrian regime and opposition groups?

“People are not able to breathe.”

The Rev. Elmarie Parker, World Mission’s regional liaison for Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, points out that in Syria, the church has the added challenge of being a minority religion in a country where some forces want the entire population to adhere to their faith.

“Christians cannot breathe because Kurds have nationalist dreams of their own separate political entity or state,” Kassab says. “We cannot breathe because they want to force a Kurdish curriculum on all the inhabitants there. They already occupied 2,500 schools and they are enforcing the Kurdish curriculum, and at the beginning of every school year on Christian schools.

“So, it’s not just that we can’t breathe because of the United States. We have to confess to our own internal problems.”

Rich Copley, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus: Finding hope in the Gospel in Syria

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Jenny Oldham, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Dayna Oliver, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Creator God, we thank you for the gift of your Son and the Creation you have entrusted to us. We thank you for the witness of generosity and enthusiasm in the presence of Jesus. As we are asked to make decisions about sharing possessions, continue to give us good examples and help us to be generous so we are examples to others. Our prayer is in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.