Christmas in Aleppo, Cairo, and Istanbul?
Today I am struck by a deep contrast, one that is firmly fixed in time and space. As I sit in my hotel room preparing for a special event, I look out onto an endless desert with sand as far as the eye can see. It is 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 Celsius) and there is a great lack of the typical holiday bustle of shopping, concerts, and decorations. It isn’t exactly a Christmas scene here on the Arabian Peninsula. In fact, few of those nearby are concerned at all about Christmas or what it represents.
At the same time, I have been receiving family Christmas letters by email from back home. Many of them show beautifully decorated trees, concerts, and treats being prepared. Some are enjoying snow, enchanting in all its cold beauty. Certainly, this time of year makes us think of what we are missing back home including our parents, family time, special programs at our home church, and even the weather. It all makes for a very festive season.
Every day over the past 10 days there has been a major tragedy in the countries in MENA.
There is a much deeper contrast, however, one that I would rather not witness. Every day over the past 10 days there has been a major tragedy in the countries in MENA. Cairo has seen two bombings on separate days, killing scores of people, including those who gathered to worship Christ at a church. In Istanbul, a football game was punctuated by a bomb killing dozens of police officers and bystanders. The nation of Yemen continues to see some of the worst fighting of the current era.
And, of course, there is Aleppo. Such tragedy that words are difficult to describe. Tears of sadness are being shed around the world by people who have seen the Facebook stories of those whose city is under siege. Story after story of those whose homes have been destroyed. How can I live at peace during Christmas when less than a few hours away from my peaceful home in Beirut people are dying?
Just recently I visited a school for Syrian refugee children. It was a beautiful and joyful place yet one that also marks a deep contrast. I sat and listened to the stories of some of the youth there. Every one of the children I met came from Aleppo. Smiling up at me, they wanted me to look up their city on my phone, but when the pictures came up, their faces turned to sadness as they saw photos of their city destroyed — so different from what they left behind. The before and after pictures are horrifying; one of the most beautiful cities in the Middle East has become a symbol of war.
Because Lebanon shares a border with Syria, there are an estimated 2 million refugees residing in various parts of the country.
Because Lebanon shares a border with Syria, there are an estimated 2 million refugees residing in various parts of the country. Every day I see Syrian children begging on the streets and many families in need. MENA Union helps operate a center to assist refugee children in learning, and we plan to open a tutoring center for children at a town near the Syrian border. These ministries are small parts of the joy that we can share with people who do not know Jesus, but we can do a lot to live God’s love in a difficult environment.
This Christmas, our MENA staff collected gifts for a Syrian refugee family. It is one small way we can assist people who have experienced such trauma and offer a little bit of hope. We are trying our best to create a Christmas of contrast — turning tragedy into hope, and war into peace — to help people catch a glimpse of Jesus and know more about His love.