Marilyn Borst spoke about the work being done through the church in Syria and Iraq at the July 18 opening evening meeting of the New Wilmington Mission Conference. The overwhelming message of her talk was “Christ wins,” a theme that echoed throughout the twenty minutes she spoke.
“This trajectory of faith that Paul lays out, that we rejoice in our suffering because suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character hope, and hope does not disappoint us,” Borst said. “The trajectory that Paul, when he wrote about that, was probably not thinking about the church of New Wilmington nor was he thinking about the church of North Avenue where I’m from…he was thinking of the church in places like Syria and Lebanon and Egypt and Iraq.”
Borst continued to speak about Syria and the glimpses of hope and faith she has seen in the country that contains only 18 Presbyterian churches and 9 ordained pastors. With half of the country’s population displaced, she said there is much turmoil due to war and the threat of ISIS and civil war.
Borst had words of encouragement for those in the struggle and those who support them: “Who has remained in place in Syria? What has remained in place in Syria? The church has remained in place in Syria.”
She told the story of Ibraheem Nasser, a solo pastor in Aleppo, Syria. His Presbyterian church was destroyed in the war, and despite the danger of the city he continues to serve his church. According to Borst, as of this past Easter they have been worshipping in an apartment, sometimes without electricity.
“The church is witness to the fact that they are here to stay,” Borst said.
In Homs, another Syrian city, the Presbyterian church was badly damaged.
“But once again, it was only the building and not the congregation that was damaged,” she said.
The pastor of the church in Homs, Moufid Karijeeli, gained a reputation as the “brave pastor.” Through the war, his congregation was scattered to other parts of Homs and even to other parts of Syria. But he traveled to each of his congregants, regardless of their location, to be able to continue to minister to them.
Borst also recounted stories of the church in Iraq.
She pointed out that it has been almost exactly one year since the world began to hear stories of ISIS’ attacks in western Iraq, specifically Mosul. Mosul was one of the most Christian cities in Iraq, with a Presbyterian church in its historic district that now is believed destroyed.
With Christians fleeing the targeted violence, soon only four Presbyterians remained: the El Sakha sisters. But finally, she said, even they had to leave Mosul and seek safety.
Borst recounted the campaign of terror ISIS waged, giving Christians few options when they took over—they could either convert to Islam, pay taxes under Sharia law or die by sword. Most of them fled.
In Kirkuk, Presbyterian pastor Haitham and elder Samir heard of Christians seeking refuge in the St. Matthew Monastery. They brought food and water to 60 families who had taken shelter there. Soon, they had 15 families—70 people—taking refuge at their own church and had to turn Sunday School rooms and offices into small apartments for these displaced Christians.
Fathers Daniel and Boulos, Syrian Orthodox priests, were housing thousands of Christians in their church but needed resources to keep the safe haven running. Haitham and Samir, when they heard of them, found ways to help them maintain the resources needed to feed and house such a large number of people. This included installing a septic tank large enough to provide sanitation for all the displaced people.
“One of the very pointed conversations we had with [Father Daniel] was when he said, ‘When we meet with Reverend Haitham, everything we ask of him is given, nothing is refused,’ and he began to cry,” Borst said. “It was a very proud moment to be a Presbyterian.”
Borst told of Syrian siblings Yaqub and Mathild pursuing theological education. Yaqub attended Near East School of Theology to become a pastor and Mathild is there now. Through the war, she says they both stood firm in their faith and helped the church to continue. Their family has since sought safety in Canada, urging them to come.
“God had not given me a message for Canada,” Mathild countered. “God has given me a message for Syria.”
Borst closed her remarks by encouraging those in attendance to come alongside the Outreach Foundation, where she works, both through prayer and monetary donation.