• Books by Ray, republished 2016
  • Treehaven, South Africa: International Retreat and Training Centre
  • South African Students Undergoing Training at Treehaven
  • Ray Barnett, founder, Friends In The West
  • Prayers and practical help for those suffering through violence and war.

SYRIA: STORIES FROM ALEPPO

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Displaced Syrian girl

“A ceasefire is a lie unfortunately. Always know that, even if there is a ceasefire, the rockets and mortars are there. And when there is no ceasefire, the rockets and mortars are there. And life is going on in Aleppo.”

Those are the recent words of one of our Syrian contacts. The collapse of the week-long ceasefire in Aleppo last week, and the subsequent intensifying of the military campaign by the Syrian government, has seen hundreds die in just a few days. So where is the hope?

These are the stories of Christians who have fled from Aleppo. Some share of the challenges they face, but they also share of the hope and trust they have in God.

Displaced in Damascus – “Yet another missile fell”

“What has happened to our city?” laments an Open Doors contact from Aleppo. “This is what happened a couple of days before I left for Damascus: I was on my way to see my ailing mother and my aunt. Earlier in the afternoon a missile had hit the third floor of their building and one of their neighbors had been killed. Yes, people were already bemoaning such a loss and there was so much going on in people’s minds and hearts.

“As I approached the house, another missile fell on a person who collapsed on the ground, seemingly dead, right in front of me. I ran towards the person, but I was shocked to see that people all around didn’t seem to react at all. It looked as if not a single person reacted to the tragic loss of yet another neighbour, or at least co-citizen, who was no more with us. I just couldn’t believe that my neighbours and friends had become people with no feelings or emotions. No reaction whatsoever in a place that, some years ago, would have seen people rush down from their apartments and people from everywhere run to help.

“Just then, yet another missile fell close to us – and nobody even turned to look where it had fallen. They all went about their daily duties in a life where life and death are intertwined and they are both filled with the same emptiness… During those moments, I knew what trauma means and what war and violence bring about in people’s lives.

“I wanted to share this little story with you to pray even more for us. I don’t know what’s happening to us. I just know that God is good and He loves us!”

Pastor B – “Seven hundred Christian families came”

Pastor B is an Open Doors partner from Tartus, Syria. He and his church team now supply relief packs to 2,000 families in ten different locations. When fighting gets fierce in Syria, his city sometimes faces sudden new influxes of families.

“A lot of families fled to what are considered ‘safe areas’,” Pastor B told us. “In just fifteen days, no less than 700 Christian families and a similar number of Muslim families came from Aleppo to Tartus and Mashta al Helou. These families tried to flee to Turkey, but they were unable to do so.”

Pastor B tells the people’s reaction following another bomb attack: “After the attack I observed how people were moving. The signs of fear were obvious on their faces. I saw mothers racing to the schools to get their children. However, as they were going, the city was completely shut down by security forces. This caused even a greater fear and anger. I could not hold my tears…

“Pray for these newly arrived people, that they will get the support they need. We ask for your prayers for wisdom how to best manage this drastic increase of internally displaced people. Syria witnessed an increase in [food] prices to levels we haven’t seen before.”

Kristina – “Muslims are coming to church now”

Kristina – like many other Syrian Christians – left her home church in Aleppo to flee to a safer area. “In my church, now only ten per cent of the regular church-goers are left,” Kristina explains, talking about her church back in Aleppo. “But you know what’s surprising? The church is still filled with people: refugees take their place. Muslims are coming to the church now.”

War and Islamic extremism have caused millions to flee from Syria, while millions of others are displaced within the region, struggling to survive, often too poor or unwell to leave. Though Christians face the added threat of being targeted by Islamic extremists, many are choosing to stay and serve their communities. They believe they have a vital role to play in rebuilding their nations.

Source: Open Doors



Survivors’ stories: life after Islamic State violence

A Syrian refugee and two displaced Iraqis use their skills to survive after losing everything

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A job at a local bakery helps Ghazan provide for his family, February 2016 WWM

The New York Declaration for more humane treatment of refugees, made on 19 September at the 70th UN General Assembly, will be welcomed by the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Syrians, including many Christians, living in displacement camps or with relatives, after fleeing the conflict with so-called Islamic State (IS).

Many live in unfamiliar parts of their own country after losing their homes. They don’t always feel welcome, but they get by, using skills that helped them earn a good living before the war.

Two Iraqis – Ghazan and Suaad – and Jonas from Syria told World Watch Monitor their stories of escaping the conflict and survival in the camps.

The baker

Ghazan, 47, a father of three, used to own his own business. In the summer of 2014, he was forced out of his house in Mosul, the city in northern Iraq now controlled by IS. He says living in a displacement camp has been hard, but he found a job at a local bakery and this helps provide for his family.

Ghazan, with his head sticking through the shop window waiting for the next customer, is one of the first people you see when you walk down one of Erbil’s busy shopping streets. When a customer arrives, he quickly and skillfully fills a clear plastic bag with samoon, a traditional Iraqi bread. He looks like he’s been doing this his whole life. “Please try some,” he says.

Speaking in a backroom at the bakery, Ghazan says this is all new to him. Standing next to a hot oven, he talks about the humbling experience of working here, earning one tenth of his former salary. “Back in my own town on the Nineveh Plain, I used to have a successful transport company,” he says. “We had a good life until IS came and forced us out.”

He shrugs his shoulders. He misses his house, the village church and his business. He doesn’t know what happened to the first two, but he knows what happened to his company. “I heard that IS stole all our cars and are using them in Mosul right now,” he says.

Ghazan has a daughter and two sons. The oldest is 21, the youngest nine. “It was hard to see my family displaced. We lost our home, our place to stay,” he says.

At first the family stayed with Ghazan’s sister, but, because there was no local college for his eldest child, the family continued on to Erbil. The city has been a safe haven to many Christians fleeing IS.

They arrived in Erbil with nothing. “The first 15 days were hard,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find a job, I had no income, and the rent for our apartment was high.”

He’d started to visit a church in Erbil and it helped him find a job. When the church asked him to manage a bakery, he accepted immediately.

Wiping the sweat off his face, he says: “Although I don’t earn much here and I have to work much longer hours than I did in my last job, I can at least pay rent so my family doesn’t have to live in a camp.”

Ghazan has barely known peace. During his lifetime his country has engaged in wars against the Kurds, Iran, two Gulf Wars and the current conflict with IS. He hopes for a brighter future for his family. “I have lost everything, but I thank God that my family is still with me.”

The farmer

When Jonas lived in Syria he owned a big farm. He too had a good life, but in common with many refugees, lost everything: his property, his job and his friends. He now lives, like more than one million other Syrian refugees, in neighbouring Lebanon.

Jonas is in his early 50s and had a caretaker to help him run the farm. “One day IS came and they wanted all my cows,” he says. “I was at the farm with the caretaker. I told them I didn’t want them to take my cattle. They started shooting and then my caretaker fell dead on the ground. I was hit in my leg three times.”

He lifts his trouser leg to show three round scars.

“They took all my cows and I heard they sold them in Turkey,” he says. “Turkey is playing a dirty game in Syria.”

He opens Google Maps on his phone to find an old satellite image of his property. Pointing at the map he says: “This was my farm. It is very big. These buildings here were huge.” He explains what each of the buildings was for and then tries to indicate the borders of his land. “I had about 2,000 olive trees here too. They’re now all gone. IS destroyed everything – the house, the buildings, they cut down all the trees. I lost everything there.”

He survived the attack, but, knowing IS were closing in, decided to move his family to Lebanon, where he found work helping build community centres in the refugee camps. “We’re living in a small apartment now and I have some work in construction,” he says. “The first year here I became depressed. But I started to pray more to God and that has helped me. I pray very often but have all these questions about why [attacks by IS] happen to Christians.”

Jonas is confident that he and his family will be taken care of but, for Syria, he is less hopeful. “Syria is finished. When the war is over, people will be full of hatred. They don’t forget who killed their brother, son or father. They will want to take revenge,” he says. “I think there is only a future for the Church in Syria when Christians all around the world help. If the Christians really disappear from Syria it will be a disaster for Christianity all around the world. You know, we Christians love our country, we would love to stay, would love to return, but we need the basic conditions to live there.”

The tailor

Suaad has been a tailor all her life. It’s a job she loves.

In 2014 she too was forced to leave her home because of the growing conflict with IS. She joined the many displaced people in Iraq. After arriving in Erbil she found a job managing a small sewing factory on the second floor of a residential flat.

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Suaad: ‘sometimes a displaced person asks me to make a dress. I don’t charge them. How could I? WWM

She’s currently making children’s pyjamas. “Feel how soft the fabric is,” she says, as she stands cutting fabrics on a table in the middle of the factory. Behind her is a row of sewing machines used by other displaced people to make robes and pyjamas.
Suaad’s eyes light up when she talks about her old job in Mosul, where she’d worked since the 1980s. But there is sadness. “Actually, I haven’t experienced much happiness since I became displaced from my town on the Nineveh Plain,” she says.

She remembers the good things – how she lived together in peace with her neighbours, whether they were Christian, Yezidi or Muslim. She was born in Mosul and had expected to grow old there, but in 2014 she had to flee from IS overnight. “I haven’t been able to return since,” she says. “I feel heavy inside, not knowing what has happened to my town.”

Suaad says she will only be happy again when she can return home.

A widow with no children, Souad has been staying with her brother and his family for two years. She says her brother would never ask his older sister for rent but she saw him struggling financially as the economic crisis in the country got worse. So Souad found work through a church-run project that set up a sewing factory, which meant she could then contribute to the family income.

“The priest asked me to be in charge of the factory so I took the job,” she says. “I would have done it for nothing if necessary, but I am happy that I get paid and I can share it with my [brother’s] family.”

Suaad makes clothes for those who need them most. If they can afford to buy the clothes, they pay for them; if they can’t, they don’t have to. “It’s what I like most about the job. That I can share with those in a worse position then me,” she says. “Sometimes a displaced person asks me to make a dress. I don’t charge them. How could I?”

She helps train other displaced women; some are then hired to work in the factory. “In just a few weeks I can teach them the basics of tailoring. They can use these skills to earn money for their families either here in the factory or elsewhere. Either way, it helps them work towards a future,” she says.

According to the UN, one in every 113 people on earth is a refugee. About one fifth of Lebanon’s population is made up of refugees – at 1.4 million it is only second to Turkey (2 million) in accepting the highest number of refugees from Syria. Syria’s own population has undergone “the largest displacement crisis globally,” says the UN – more than half its pre-war population of 22 million are no longer living in their own homes. About 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced within the country and 4.4 million are refugees outside it.

About 3.3 million Iraqis have been displaced within their own country. Many have ended up in Erbil in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Since June 2016, the city has absorbed another 90,000 people seeking refuge from conflict.

Source: World Watch Monitor



Religious leaders have duty to “protect believers from bigotry” (Podcast)

Religious leaders of all faiths have a duty to protect believers from bigotry and extremism, according to an Imam based in Italy, who recently visited the United Nations.

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Imam Yahya Pallavicini UN Photo

Imam Yahya Pallavicini, from the Italian Religious Islamic Community, was at the UN to participate in a discussion on the “indispensable” role of religious leaders in preventing atrocity crimes.

Extremist groups, such as ISIL, are increasingly using religion to recruit young and impressionable followers.

Mustafa Al Gamal asked the Imam how religious leaders from different backgrounds could work together to combat the rise of religious extremism.

Duration: 3’59″

 



It’s Ray Barnett’s 80th today!

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Ray Barnett, March 2016, during a visit to his birthplace at Portstewart in Northern Ireland.

Today, Monday 26 September, 2016, Ray Barnett, founder of Friends In The West and the African Children’s Choir, celebrates his 80th birthday. The occasion is tinged with sadness, however, since just over three weeks ago, on 2nd September, Ray’s wife of more than 50 years, passed into the presence of the Lord.

Most people have long retired by their 80th birthday. Throughout his life, however, Ray has always prayed for ‘vision’ in line with God’s will. He firmly believes the Bible verse from Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision the people perish”.

The desire to be part of God’s answer to the problems that exist in this world have given Ray a ‘drive’ that is extraordinary by normal standards. Ray began with Friends In The West, helping Christians who had been imprisoned for their faith behind what was then called the ‘Iron Curtain’.

His vision to help led to trips to Africa when Christians were suffering and being slaughtered under the dictator, Idi Amin. He had a God-given vision to help the many thousands of African children who had been orphaned as a result of what became known as the Uganda Holocaust. This led to the formation of the very first African Children’s Choir in 1984.

More than thirty years later, choirs continue to tour today and the organisation can look back on incredible achievements. The African Children’s Choir, facilitated by parent organisation Music For Life, has provided an education for more than 52,000 children throughout Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa. It has also directly impacted the lives of thousands of other vulnerable African children through music therapy and life skills training camps, Music For life centres, and container shipments of food, clothing and supplies.

Over the years, Ray has personally signed on as legal guardian to more than a thousand children who have gone through the Choir program and have been fully supported by the organization to adulthood. With the support and love of the Music For Life staff and Daddy Ray, as he as affectionately called, many of the Choir children have earned their college degrees and have gone on to become doctors, attorneys, engineers, pastors, church leaders, journalists, teachers and relief workers in Africa—realizing Ray’s full-circle vision of “Helping Africa’s most vulnerable children today, so they can help Africa tomorrow.”

Ray is now looking at ways to help Christians in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East who are facing imprisonment, torture and death by beheading because of their faith. Friends in the West has also embarked on a new project, currently being piloted in South Africa, that provides youth mentoring and leadership training. The program complements the work Friends in the West is already involved in, adding another dimension to its work of raising awareness of Christians under threat, and encouraging prayer and practical support for the persecuted and displaced.

Would you pray for Ray at this difficult time as he copes with bereavement along with other challenges that he’s facing? Would you go a step further and send him a message of encouragement? Maybe you have a Bible verse or other words of comfort. Even if you don’t know Ray personally, it would be lovely to know that people out there ‘care’ enough to get in touch.

 

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Below you can view Esther Rantzen’s, ‘Hearts of Gold’ programme featuring Ray barnett, founder of the African Children’s Choir.



When Mosul is freed, Christians may face a new crisis

Nina Shea: Refugees returning to their homes may find them occupied by those who flee battle

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Displaced Iraqi Christians in Kurdistan hung “Liberate Mosul” signs in August. Photo courtesy of Open Doors

The eventual liberation of Mosul, Iraq, from the so-called Islamic State will end one crisis for dislocated Christians only to create a new one, a religious-freedom expert says.

Planning documents drawn up by the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government anticipate that driving IS out of Iraq’s second city will create a surge of at least 100,000 people and possibly as many as 1 million, depending on how the fighting goes, Britain’s Guardian news organization has reported.

“Those people are probably going to go into the towns and villages of the Nineveh Plain, that are standing there, unprotected and uninhabited, that belong to Christians and Yazidis, and they will become entrenched there, especially if Mosul’s infrastructure is damaged and they can’t go back immediately,” said Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington, D.C.-based Hudson Institute, on 23 Sept. “That would preclude these genocide minorities … from being able to leave the camps in Kurdistan, where they are today, and going home.”

Shea addressed her remarks to the Religion News Association, meeting in Washington.

The Nineveh Plain is a region in northwest Iraq where Christians have lived since the earliest days of the church. IS militants burst out of Syria in 2014 and overran the region, sending hundreds of thousands of Christians and Yazidis, a Kurdish ethno-religious group, fleeing eastward to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands remain in sprawling refugee camps; others have trickled into Kurdistan’s majority-Muslim society or have sought asylum beyond Iraq’s borders.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in August the assault to break IS’ two-year grip on Mosul will begin before the end of the year.

“I have deep fears about the aftermath of the Mosul offensive, what will happen to the Christian community,” Shea said.

Christians faced a similar situation a decade ago, Shea said, after al-Qaeda drove them and other minorities out of the Dora district of Baghdad. US-led forces later uprooted the militants, but the Christian presence in Dora today is much diminished.

Nor is there much reason to hope that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will be inclined to give special regard to the dislocated Christians, she said. While governments in Europe and America have formally accused IS of Christian genocide, the UN has demurred.

In a June report, the UN-created Independent Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic declared Christians “live difficult and often precarious existences” under IS control, but that they enjoy a “right to exist” if they pay a tribute tax.

Said Shea: “Far from the truth.”

“The bishops of the region, the religious leaders, say there’s absolutely no Christian communities living under ISIS. There are Christian individuals. But no communities that have access to churches, religious leaders, their religious rites, their sacraments, as Christian had who paid an Islamic tax over 1,300 years under various caliphates.”

Three months prior to the commission’s report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the American government had concluded Christians could find no safe quarter under IS rule.

“We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith; that it executed 49 Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya; and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery,” he said, using the English form of the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

The Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, part of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said in November 2015 that IS in July 2014 offered Christians safety return for the tax, known as jizya. Today, “it is unknown whether Christians who were given the option to pay a jizya or leave, instead of convert or face death, would still be given this option should they return now.”

Such second-guessing of Christians “comes dangerously close to blaming the victims,” said Andrew Walther, a vice president of the Knights of Columbus at the Religion News Association gathering. The Knights, a Catholic men’s service organization, lobbied the U.S. government to classify IS treatment of Christians as genocide.

“One could logically conclude that the untold numbers of Christians who died, were kidnapped, forced into sexual slavery and dispossessed … somehow they must have brought this on themselves by just not paying that tax,” Walther said.

He said half of the remaining Christians in Iraq live as refugees in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. UN policy permits providing relief to individuals, but does not address groups targeted for genocide, he said.

“Christians get no US or UN money, and should the private aid they receive dry up, they would very quickly face a large-scale humanitarian crisis,” he said.

Source: World Watch Monitor



One of world’s worst humanitarian crises “struggling for attention” (Podcast)

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A woman buys dates at the market in the town of Bol on the outskirts of Lake Chad. Photo: OCHA/Pierre Peron

One of world’s worst humanitarian crises underway in the Lake Chad Basin is “struggling for attention” according to the Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, Jan Eliasson.

Nine million people urgently need humanitarian aid across the region with some 6.3 million not getting enough to eat.

On the margins of the UN General Assembly debate, leaders from the region got together to discuss what needs to be done to improve the situation.

Daniel Dickinson’s report begins with the words of Jan Eliasson.

Duration: 3’44″