The FAQs: #Prayforrefugees and the Syrian Civil War

Numerous Christian organizations in America are joining together today for an organized prayer campaign, #Prayforrefugees, marking the fifth anniversary of Syrian Civil War.

The campaign was created by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (ERLC) and includes the World Vision, World Relief, Baptist Global Response, Global Hunger Relief, Justice Conference, Lutheran World Relief, Catholic Relief Services, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and PrayerMate, among many others.

Campaign leaders are encouraging churches, Christian organizations and individuals to pray on behalf of the more than 13.5 million Syrians involved in the international humanitarian crisis. Participants are asked to share the campaign on social media by using the hashtag #prayforrefugees.

In preparation for the prayer campaign, here are some things you should know about the Syrian civil war: 

What is the Syrian Civil War?

In 2011, during the Middle Eastern protest movement known as the Arab Spring, protesters in Syria demanded the end of Ba’ath Party rule and the resignation ofPresident Bashar al-Assad, whose family has held the presidency in the country since 1971. In April 2011, the Syrian Army was sent to quell the protest, and soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. After months of military sieges, the protests evolved into an armed rebellion and civil war spread across the country.

According to the BBC, the conflict has broadened and become a battle between the country's Sunni majority against the president's Shia Alawite sect, and drawn in regional and world powers. The rise of the jihadist group Islamic State has also complicated the conflict.

What is the “Arab Spring” and the “Ba’ath Party”?

The Arab Spring is the term the Western media has used to describe the various protests, demonstrations, riots, and civil wars that began in December 2010 and spread throughout many countries with predominantly Arab populations.

The Ba’ath Party (short for the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party) is a political party that began in Syria and espouses Ba’athism, a mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialist ideologies. Ba’athism calls for unification of the Arab world into a single state. The movement is split into two main factions, one in Syria and one in Iraq (Saddam Hussein was a Ba’athist).

And what’s Sunni and Shia?

Of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world, about 90 percent are Sunni. The name “Sunni” is derived from the phrase “Ahl al-Sunnah” or “People of the Tradition” (the tradition referring to the practices of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad). Shia compose the other 10 percent (though they are the majority in some countries, like Iran and Iraq). Shia—literally “Shiat Ali” or the “Party of Ali”—claimed that Ali was the rightful successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader (imam) of the Muslim community following his death in 632.

They’ve been in opposition—and sometimes outright war—since AD 632.

What is the toll of the Syrian civil war?

To date, estimates range between 250,000 and 470,000 Syrians killed, 1.8 million wounded, 3.1 million refugees, and 6.3 million internally displaced

I know the country is somewhere in the Middle East, but where exactly is it located?

Syria, which is about the size of North Dakota, is located north of the Arabian Peninsula at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea. The country is bordered by Turkey on the north, Iraq on the east, Jordan on the south, and Lebanon, Israel, and the Mediterranean on the west. Its biggest cities are Aleppo (pre-war population 2.3 million) and Damascus (pre-war population 1.7 million).

Isn’t Syria one of the lands mentioned in the Bible?

The modern state of Syria is part of the area known throughout history as Greater Syria. In the Bible the city of Damascus is mentioned 67 times. The road to Damascus was the place of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9), and Antioch was the city in which the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).

Hasn’t the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its own people?

That certainly appears to be the case. According to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the firsthand accounts from humanitarian organizations on the ground, like Doctors Without Borders and the Syria Human Rights Commission, all strongly indicate that chemical weapons were used on civilians in Damascus in August 2013.

Secretary Kerry also stated that the Syrian regime maintains custody of the country’s chemical weapons and that have the capacity to deliver them by using rockets. In 2013 the Syrian regime refused to allow U.N. investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them. Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.

After a threat of U.S. military intervention, President Assad finally agreed to the complete removal and destruction of Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Investigators have still found evidence of chemical weapons being used by government forces.

Are the anti-Assad rebels the “good guys” in the civil war?

Not exactly. Christians are increasingly becoming the target of violent attacks by the rebel forces. Roman Catholic and Orthodox groups in Syria say the anti-government rebels have committed “awful acts” against Christians, including beheadings, rapes, and murders of pregnant women. A special “Vulnerability Assessment of Syria’s Christians” conducted by the World Watch unit of Open Doors International from June 2013 warned that Syrian Christians are the victims of “disproportionate violence and abuse.” They warned further that Christian women in Syria are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse.

How are other countries involved?

Several countries have used the crisis as a proxy war for their own interest. Iran and Russian have backed President Assad against the rebels. As the BBC notes, the Iranian government is believed to be spending billions of dollars a year to bolster the Syrian government. And Russia has launched an air campaign against Assad's enemies. Lebanon's Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement has also backed the Syrian government by sending fighters to the area. Starting today, though, the Russians will be pulling their troops out of the country.

Several countries with Sunni majorities—Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia—have supported the Sunni opposition. France, the UK, and the United States have also provided limited military support. The United States had been providing anti-aircraft weapons and trained and armed 5,000 rebels. Both programs, however, have since been abandoned. 

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