(written October 2012)
At last, the long, hot, Antakya summer has come to an end.
We have come to the conclusion of months of hot, very hot and always hot weather; months of clear skies and rare occasional clouds that would skirt the horizon but would never fill the sky.
Last night it was real. A thunderstorm came up from the west, from the Mediterranean, guided by the mountains that lie between the city and the sea. The lightning flashed and the thunder roared and we knew that rain was definitely on the way.
The night sky was broken by sudden, violent flashes of light, illuminating the night with a frightful brilliance followed by the booming, raucous clap and reverberations of thunder, the only danger being if the lightning were to strike the electricity infrastructure and send a damaging surge down the lines to the computers and televisions that fill the homes of the people.
And yet, last night it was more sobering. It raised the spectre of what is happening not many miles away. Twenty miles or less to our east all hell is reigning in our neighbour, Syria. There, the flashes are not benign lightening, but deadly fire. In the place of harmless thunder, there the sound of gunfire and bombs pepper the day and night, leaving no respite.
Eighteen months ago our brothers and sisters, believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, people whose names have been inscribed in the Lamb’s Book of Life were living and marrying, buying and selling, making plans and having babies. They had no idea that their world would change so dramatically, that the ‘norm’ would cease to be, and would be replaced by a horrific new ‘norm’.
Today the questions they face daily revolve around surviving, finding enough food to eat and sourcing water that is safe to drink. Gone are the days of carefree shopping in the market, children playing in the streets, plans for holidays and family gatherings.
It is an immutable, brutal fact of war, that whether you support or oppose the fighting – bullets are indiscriminate, equal opportunity killers and bombs do not query your position on any issue before they do their deadly duty.
Meanwhile, here in Antakya, there is a new shopping mall under construction. Every time I walk by I am amazed at the speed and the quality of the project management. Something new is rising on the banks of the Orontes River. It will be beautiful, full of shops – providing employment opportunities as well as spurring the local economy. It is a delight to behold.
In contrast, just twenty or less miles away, buildings are being destroyed and cities are littered with the detritus and debris that was once someone’s home, business, school or hospital.
The contrast is so stark and made especially so, as it is so near. Additionally, there has been a great influx of people fleeing the fighting. Those who flee with nothing are in the camps, those with means are renting flats and living in the city.
Some people wonder if there are opportunities to share the Good News with the incoming masses. The fact of the matter is there are three important considerations to remember.
The first consideration: no one, right up to and including members of the Turkish Parliament can enter the refugee camps. They are closed to all, not just those who may wish to help. Indeed, many may desire to help, but the door is most decidedly shut. The residents of the camps have all their material needs catered for – they lack nothing and hence are not in ‘need’. (Yes, they live in tents and it is a bit like a prison, but they have food, health care and sanitation – their most basic needs are being met.)
The second consideration: please do not let the media mislead you, this is a religious war – the fighting is by the Sunni majority against the Shi’a/Alevi (ruling) minority. This is not about democracy. This is not about freedom. It is about gaining the ascendancy and changing the nature of the state to reflect Sunni values.
The third consideration: most of the people who have fled are Sunni. They are aggressively hostile to the Shi’a/Alevi and to anyone who is not Sunni. They come as conservative, covered people. They are searching, but not for Truth, but for support in their fight – they believe they have the answer and are looking for those who will facilitate it.
Instead of open doors to share with people, we find the local tenor of the community to be disturbed. Sunni and Alevi who have co-existed in relative peace in this province are being exposed to open hostility by the new-comers – hostility aimed at the Alevi. In Turkey, the Sunni are a majority but in Antakya, they may be at parity or even a minority. The local Alevi who have lived in comfortable harmony are now feeling threatened and are drawing more tightly together as a community.
Some ask, “Is there a sense of fear or foreboding in the city?” The simple answer is “no”, (as it was in 2012 when this was first written). As we go about our daily life, go to the market, walk through the old section of town, dialogue with shop-keepers and people we meet, we are not struck with fear nor apprehension.
Some may ask, “Are you afraid? Do you fear for your safety?” The simple answer is “no.”
Why? Well, I suppose the fact that there are no active problems in our area… Yes, recently there was a tragic incident at Akçakale where two women and three children were killed by a mortar bomb from across the border… but that is many, many miles away and happened right on the border. So, there is no ‘pressing’ reason to fear.
But more importantly, we serve the Lord of the Universe – the Almighty God. We believe, confess and declare the Scripture that says, “If we live, we live to the Lord and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Romans 14:8 NKJV). This has to be true, not only in the good times but also in the bad times, even when there is a danger of dying. If I cannot trust the Lord in times like these….. then how small is my faith.
Whatever may be, we must maintain an open door of ministry to the ‘whosever will’ and not limited to any particular group – remembering the words of our Lord to ‘love our enemies’.
Regardless of the circumstances, we need to reflect the Truths of Scripture in our lives as we live – that we do not just read it, understand it, embrace it, confess it, but live it.
This is true for all of us who profess the name of Jesus here and our brothers and sisters across the border, and it is essential that we know, daily, the peace, strength, perseverance, endurance and joy of the Lord.