Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Boston and Syria, through God’s eyes

Amid the tsunami of sympathy expressed after the Boston Marathon attack, a photo making the rounds online caught my eye.

It showed a group of young men and boys standing in front of what appeared to be a bombed-out building in a town in Syria. They held a banner emblazoned with these words in bold black letters: “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens every day in Syria. Do accept our condolences.”

I don’t know whether the photo is authentic or not. But the truth about what is happening in that suffering land is unquestionable. In fact, a day when only a few innocents are killed in Syria’s bloodbath of a civil war would be welcomed. An average of 100 civilians die each day as the fighting there drags on. More than 70,000 have lost their lives since the war began.

The numbers numb the mind. Millions of Syrian civilians have been displaced inside the country. They wander the countryside in search of shelter and food, dodging the crossfire of war and fleeing deliberate terror attacks on them as government forces and rebel groups battle for territory. Rape and torture abound.

In the latest of many reports of civilian slaughter, opposition activists claimed April 21 that government forces had killed at least 80 people — and as many as 250 — in a strategic town south of Damascus. Soldiers and loyalist militias burned houses, seized field hospitals and killed the wounded, according to the activists. A British-based human rights group said the dead included men, women and children.

“They’re just scattered limbs and charred bodies that are completely unrecognizable,” a resident of the area told The New York Times. Video images posted online appeared to show a row of bodies wrapped in carpets or bags. Several had been shot in the face. The damaged town’s electricity and water reportedly have been cut off. The only bakery has been destroyed. Those who don’t flee face starvation.

That hideous pattern has been repeated in many other Syrian towns. And rebel bands — some led by Jihadist fighters from outside Syria — stand accused of similar massacres.

“After nearly two years of violence, over 4 million people are in need of assistance,” Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response, told Baptist Press in March. “The number of refugees from Syria [in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon] is approaching 1 million, with 80 percent of those being women and children. IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Syria are now approaching 3 million.”

Palmer told of a field partner who traveled into affected areas and “witnessed heartbreaking scenes of human suffering and darkness. In one area, a package of seven pieces of pita bread, a staple food, was selling for US $4. In another area, one liter of fuel was going for $10 — the equivalent of about $40 per gallon.”

Most Southern Baptist relief work so far has focused on Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. But the massive suffering inside Syria cannot be ignored, despite the danger involved in delivering aid. “We have had four project sites, with three being outside the country and one inside,” Palmer said. “Now, because of the deepening crisis in the country, we feel compelled to mobilize more resources through trusted partners inside Syria, while still supporting work in the refugee areas in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.” The aid will include staple foods, medicine and hygiene supplies, shelter, heaters and oil, clothing, blankets, mattresses, carpets and survival-based business assistance.

We mourn the victims of the Boston attack because they are innocents and because they are our own. The death of an 8-year-old boy breaks our hearts. The tragedy hits close to home. The seemingly endless violence in Syria, meanwhile, seems far away, impersonal.

But I can’t forget the Syrian refugee family I met last fall in a Jordanian border town. The Muslim father and mother had crossed the Syria-Jordan border with their five children. They had watched in horror as their teenage son was shot in the head in an ambush. As he lay bleeding in his mother’s arms, she screamed for help. A soldier approached, gun pointed. Their 4-year-old son, who rarely speaks, stood and held up his arms. “I beg you, Uncle, don't hurt us anymore. Have mercy on us,” he appealed.

The child’s eloquent words must have moved the soldier, who took the wounded older brother to a hospital for treatment. The whole family later made it into Jordan, where they found comfort and aid from a Christian church that helps many refugees. The older boy has recovered, but walks haltingly and needs physical therapy.

The Syrian crisis isn’t far away for me, because I have looked into the eyes of mothers, fathers and children who are suffering its consequences. But you don’t have to go to the Syrian border to sense their suffering. If you follow Christ, you can look through His eyes, feel with His heart and touch with His hands. He is inside Syria right now, seeking and comforting the lost and the suffering — just as He was at the finish line in Boston.

“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few’” (Matthew 9:36-37, NASB).

When you think of Boston, remember Syria, too.
(Contributions to relief ministry among Syrian refugees can be made by visiting www.imb.org/syrianrefugees
and designating “Syria relief” in the comment line. For updates on how God is at work through the crisis in Syria and ways to pray and help, email love4syria@pobox.com)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Generational challenge confronts global church


(PHOTO) SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS—In a Cairo neighborhood, a child walks by an Egyptian flag painted on a wall — with apparent symbols of a Muslim crescent and Christian cross added. As the often-violent struggle for freedom continues in Egypt and other countries, larger demographic forces are at work. Sixty percent of all Egyptians are under 25. The total population of the Middle East and North Africa surpassed 430 million in 2007 and likely will top 700 million by 2050. One in every three people in the region is between 10 and 24. About one in every five people on earth is between the ages of 15 and 24. They want jobs and better lives, but prosperity alone isn’t enough. They want something more. “People here are craving life,” said a mission leader in the Middle East. “They’re craving change and not just political and economic change. Their deep heart cry is for answers.” PHOTO by Joseph Rose

The global spread of democracy doesn’t look nearly as promising as it once did.

High hopes for lasting freedom appear to be fading in Russia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, to name a few countries where authoritarians, extremists, corruption and other forces have undermined fledgling democratic institutions. Dictators have fallen like bowling pins in some places, but the vacuum they left behind hasn’t necessarily been filled by freedom. Elsewhere, police states have proven surprisingly resilient in the face of challenges from globalization, demands for change and the spread of social media.

In the Middle East, epicenter of massive movements for change, “observers are increasingly cynical about the prospects for democracy, arguing that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist winter,” reports the journal Foreign Affairs. Radical Islamism is the biggest threat to liberty in the region. However, Foreign Affairs argued that “instead of fretting over Islamists, the international community needs to have a more nuanced conception of political transition in the Arab world and should strive to bolster institutions and economic reforms in post-Arab Spring countries.”

Maybe, but diplomats and democracy activists said the same thing when now-deposed dictators were still in power. Building durable democratic institutions and reforming national economies take time, even under favorable conditions.

Meanwhile, there are larger demographic forces at work worldwide.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently compared three major countries: China, India and Egypt. Very different societies, very different governments. “But there is one thing that all three have in common: gigantic youth bulges under the age of 30, increasingly connected by technology but very unevenly educated,” Friedman wrote. “[T]he one that will thrive the most in the 21st century will be the one that is most successful at converting its youth bulge into a ‘demographic dividend’ that keeps paying off every decade, as opposed to a ‘demographic bomb’ that keeps going off every decade. That will be the society that provides more of its youth with the education, jobs and voice they seek to realize their full potential.”
India counted 560 million people under the age of 25 in 2011. Of that number, 225 million were between the ages of 10 and 19. In Egypt, the largest country in the Middle East, a million people are born every nine months, according to one estimate. Sixty percent of all Egyptians are under 25. The total population of the Middle East and North Africa surpassed 430 million in 2007. It’s expected to top 700 million by 2050. One in every three people in the region is between 10 and 24. Asia, by far the largest demographic region of the globe with more than 4 billion people, likely will increase to 5.3 billion by mid-century.

About one in every five people on earth is between the ages of 15 and 24. Eight in 10 of them live in Africa and Asia. As population growth rates stabilize or even decline in the West — particularly Europe — future growth will come almost entirely in the global East and South. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The “demographic dividend” Friedman identified could benefit many countries — if young workers can fuel productivity and prosperity in once-poor areas of the global East and South.

They want jobs. They want better lives. But prosperity alone isn’t enough for them. Even freedom and democracy aren’t enough. They want something more — and they are absorbing ideas from all directions.

“We’re sitting on a tectonic plate that is shifting,” a mission leader in the Middle East told me last year. “If expectations continue not to be met, we'll see another [political] earthquake. But this is a really good time for anybody who wants to discuss ideas. The marketplace of ideas has changed radically. For the Gospel, we need to be in the conversation.”

Another Christian worker in the region put it this way: “People here are craving life. They’re craving change and not just political and economic change. Their deep heart cry is for answers. What they grew up with is not giving them answers. [The current political turmoil eventually] will create even more of a spiritual harvest. What men meant for evil, God will use for good.”

Most of the people groups currently unreached or unengaged by the Gospel live in the vast eastern and southern regions experiencing rapid population growth. Most of the countries in those regions have a high percentage of children, teens and young adults.

Making disciples among them is the great generational challenge facing the 21st-century church.