Southern Baptist leaders are exhorting Christians to pray for Aleppo, Syria, a city being destroyed in civil war between the Syrian government and rebels, including the Islamic State.
The latest call for prayer follows the desperate pleas of residents who believed their death was imminent as the Syrian government reportedly made significant progress in overtaking and evacuating rebel-held areas in eastern Aleppo. The United Nations received multiple reports of execution-style killings—although it was not clear whether the perpetrators were government or rebel forces—and as many as 6,000 men who had tried to evacuate eastern Aleppo have been forced to fight for the Syrian government, The New York Times reported Dec. 13.
If the Syrian government aided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah can successfully evacuate eastern Aleppo, The New York Times said, it would be a major turning point in the nearly six-year civil war that has killed about 450,000 civilians and forced the evacuations of millions more.
David Platt, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, tweeted Dec. 14, "Would you pause for a moment right now and plead for the peace, justice, and mercy of Christ to be made known in Aleppo?"
Social media posts and audio reports from Aleppo relayed residents' dilemma, with one audio message from an accountant for a medical office in Aleppo saying Dec. 10, "We are about to die or be arrested."
Frank S. Page, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, expressed prayer and sympathy, especially for innocent children.
"Our prayers go out to the civilians, especially children, of Aleppo and all of Syria," Page told Baptist Press. "In geopolitical conflicts such as this, there are many complex issues involved. However, the bottom line is that civilians become the greatest casualties and the children are innocent.
"God help Syria," Page prayed. "God bless those who are ministering in this very difficult context."
Aleppo was once the largest city in Syria and was home to as many as 200,000 Christians in the mostly Islamic nation, but as few as 33,000 Christians remained in the city as recently as November, the World Watch Monitor reported.
The independent, non-governmental Syrian Network for Human Rights has identified seven main factions whose strategic war initiatives have led to the deaths of civilians in Syria, namely the Syrian government, Russian forces, Islamic State, armed opposition factions, international coalition forces, unidentified groups and Kurdish forces.
In November alone in Syria, the SNHR reported, civilian death tolls during the strategic initiatives of each faction were 741 by the Syrian government, 358 by Russian forces, 70 by IS, 104 by armed opposition factions, 69 by international coalition forces, 43 by unidentified groups and 17 by Kurdish forces, for a combined total of 1,402. More than half of those, 724, occurred in Aleppo.
Open Doors USA ranked Syria at No. 5 on its 2016 World Watch List of the countries where Christians suffer the most persecution, ranking persecution in the country as extreme. The civil war is believed especially complicated for Christians.
"The Syrian opposition is increasingly 'Islamizing' and the civil war is more and more taking on the form of a jihad against the Syrian government," Open Doors reported in its watch list. "In the conflict, all Syrians are suffering greatly, but some groups are in a more vulnerable position than others.
"One of the main features of Syria's Christian population is its combined ethnic and religious identity," Open Doors wrote. "The geographical concentration of Christians in strategic areas of the country that are vital to both the government and the opposition's war efforts is an important factor in their vulnerability, as is their alleged support for the government."
More the 7.6 million Christians have been displaced in Syria since the war began in 2011, and perhaps 170,000 Christians remain in the country of between 17 million and 23 million, according to Open Doors.
Diana Chandler is general assignment writer/editor for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.