RICHMOND, Va. (BP) — Amid the tsunami of sympathy expressed after the Boston Marathon attack, a photo making the rounds online caught my eye.
It showed a group of young men and boys standing in front of what appeared to be a bombed-out building in a town in Syria. They held a banner emblazoned with these words in bold black letters: “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens every day in Syria. Do accept our condolences.”
I don’t know whether the photo is authentic or not. But the truth about what is happening in that suffering land is unquestionable. In fact, a day when only a few innocents are killed in Syria’s bloodbath of a civil war would be welcomed. An average of 100 civilians die each day as the fighting there drags on. More than 70,000 have lost their lives since the war began.
The numbers numb the mind. Millions of Syrian civilians have been displaced inside the country. They wander the countryside in search of shelter and food, dodging the crossfire of war and fleeing deliberate terror attacks on them as government forces and rebel groups battle for territory. Rape and torture abound.
In the latest of many reports of civilian slaughter, opposition activists claimed April 21 that government forces had killed at least 80 people — and as many as 250 — in a strategic town south of Damascus. Soldiers and loyalist militias burned houses, seized field hospitals and killed the wounded, according to the activists. A British-based human rights group said the dead included men, women and children.
“They’re just scattered limbs and charred bodies that are completely unrecognizable,” a resident of the area told The New York Times. Video images posted online appeared to show a row of bodies wrapped in carpets or bags. Several had been shot in the face. The damaged town’s electricity and water reportedly have been cut off. The only bakery has been destroyed. Those who don’t flee face starvation.
That hideous pattern has been repeated in many other Syrian towns. And rebel bands — some led by Jihadist fighters from outside Syria — stand accused of similar massacres.
“After nearly two years of violence, over 4 million people are in need of assistance,” Jeff Palmer, executive director of Baptist Global Response, told Baptist Press in March. “The number of refugees from Syria [in neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon] is approaching 1 million, with 80 percent of those being women and children. IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Syria are now approaching 3 million.”
Palmer told of a field partner who traveled into affected areas and “witnessed heartbreaking scenes of human suffering and darkness. In one area, a package of seven pieces of pita bread, a staple food, was selling for US $4. In another area, one liter of fuel was going for $10 — the equivalent of about $40 per gallon.”
Most Southern Baptist relief work so far has focused on Syrian refugees in surrounding countries. But the massive suffering inside Syria cannot be ignored, despite the danger involved in delivering aid. “We have had four project sites, with three being outside the country and one inside,” Palmer said. “Now, because of the deepening crisis in the country, we feel compelled to mobilize more resources through trusted partners inside Syria, while still supporting work in the refugee areas in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.” The aid will include staple foods, medicine and hygiene supplies, shelter, heaters and oil, clothing, blankets, mattresses, carpets and survival-based business assistance.
We mourn the victims of the Boston attack because they are innocents and because they are our own. The death of an 8-year-old boy breaks our hearts. The tragedy hits close to home. The seemingly endless violence in Syria, meanwhile, seems far away, impersonal.
But I can’t forget the Syrian refugee family I met last fall in a Jordanian border town. The Muslim father and mother had crossed the Syria-Jordan border with their five children. They had watched in horror as their teenage son was shot in the head in an ambush. As he lay bleeding in his mother’s arms, she screamed for help. A soldier approached, gun pointed. Their 4-year-old son, who rarely speaks, stood and held up his arms. “I beg you, Uncle, don’t hurt us anymore. Have mercy on us,” he appealed.
The child’s eloquent words must have moved the soldier, who took the wounded older brother to a hospital for treatment. The whole family later made it into Jordan, where they found comfort and aid from a Christian church that helps many refugees. The older boy has recovered, but walks haltingly and needs physical therapy.
The Syrian crisis isn’t far away for me, because I have looked into the eyes of mothers, fathers and children who are suffering its consequences. But you don’t have to go to the Syrian border to sense their suffering. If you follow Christ, you can look through His eyes, feel with His heart and touch with His hands. He is inside Syria right now, seeking and comforting the lost and the suffering — just as He was at the finish line in Boston.
“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few'” (Matthew 9:36-37).
When you think of Boston, remember Syria, too.
Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent. Contributions to relief ministry among Syrian refugees can be made by visiting www.imb.org/syrianrefugees and designating “Syria relief” in the comment line. For updates on how God is at work through the crisis in Syria and ways to pray and help, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).