If I described for you a Middle Eastern country where a civil war has caused unthinkable suffering and loss of life, you are likely to think of Syria. For several years now Canadian individuals and churches have welcomed thousands of Syrian refugees. But while the crisis in Syria was unfolding, another country in the Middle East also plunged into a bloody civil war, a situation that has received far less global attention. I’m talking about Yemen, a poor country in Southern Arabia of twenty-seven million people.
In 2014 a civil war broke out between the government and an insurgent group known as the Houthis, part of the minority Shia sect. In 2015, Saudi Arabia and its allies began bombing the Houthis. There have been terrible casualties on both sides; and the UN estimates that 10,000 civilians have been killed. Meanwhile, airports and seaports have been destroyed or blockaded, preventing food, fuel, and medicine from freely entering the country. As sanitation systems broke down, an epidemic of cholera began sweeping Yemen, quickly becoming the worst outbreak in modern history. As of mid-October, almost a million Yemenis had been infected.
The conflict in Yemen has been called “Syria without the cameras,” because it has not received significant media attention in Western countries. But I haven’t been able to forget Yemen because I have a friend who lives in Sana’a, its ancient capital. For some time, I have been communicating with Atif,* an old friend I met during a study-abroad program. We began to chat on Facebook and WhatsApp, and have had wide-ranging conversations about war, peace, and faith.
Atif (In Yemen): Hi Alan, I hope that you and all your family members are very well. It seems to me from Facebook that you got married, so congratulations to both of you.
Alan (In Canada): Thank you, Atif! We are doing well in Canada. I still miss the good times we shared, when you were teaching me Arabic. I’m glad we can stay in touch…
Dear Atif, I am very sorry to hear about the terrible tragedy in Sana’a. [Two mosques were targeted in terrorist attacks and 142 people were killed.] I hope that you are safe and that you and your family have not suffered in this tragedy. Please let me know that you are okay, my dear friend. Also please let me know if I can pray for you.
Hello Alan, thank you very much asking. My family and I are safe, but my children are afraid, we hope that one day our country will become stable and peaceful like Canada. Thank you for your feelings towards me and my family dear friend…
Yemen needs peace, but it seems I can make no difference: there are strong feelings of hatred between people of different political and religious parties. We need a miracle, so would you ask the church to pray for peace in Yemen? Would they care? I would really like it, because my mosque is calling for war…
Dear Atif, I have been praying for peace in Yemen and sharing your request with some friends of mine. The church will be happy to pray for peace in Yemen. I will pray miracles in Yemen. I believe that God has compassion on us, and that he brings healing and peace. That is why I have hope even when it seems that the world is dark. So I will keep praying for us and our nations. Please give my regards to your wife.
…Dear Alan, I’m really happy that you’ve responded to my request. I’m really grateful for you, your good friends and the church. l appreciate your prayers, and do believe in them. Now I have hope that things in Yemen will be good and peace will prevail in Yemen. Any miracles in Yemen will be attributed to the church’s prayers and good people like yourself. Believe me that I will never forget your care and love for me and my country, while neighbours are attacking us with missiles. Maybe it’s God’s compassion to have men of peace in times of war…
…Dear Alan, the war is changing my beliefs. If religious people can be so bad, then why do people need religion? Life is still difficult here, there is an aggressive war against Yemen, there’s no electricity and no salaries for months, and we must do our best to remain as a family… I’m against this war and have always thought of doing something to help, to let the world hear our voices. I don’t want to bother you with this, but l wonder if you can help. Ma salaama, ya sadiqi [Good-bye my friend.]
Dear Atif, let’s try to talk on WhatsApp soon. I would like to share with you about a petition I am sending to the Government of Canada to help bring about a peaceful resolution in Yemen. There’s no guarantee that it will help, but we need to try something.
Marhaba ya azizi Alan. (Hello, dear Alan) This is great news. How great it will be to have peace in Yemen after more than two years of war. God let peace prevail in Yemen and in the whole word… Thank you for all good feelings and prayers for me, my family and my country. Yesterday was really an amazing day, I noticed that my wife was unusually happy and in high spirits, talking about her future plans.
Good morning Atif! I hope you have spent the night peacefully. It is so wonderful to hear from you and to hear that you have had a good day, and that your wife’s spirits have improved. As we discussed, I am sending you a passage from the Bible. It is from the Gospel According to Matthew. I hope the file is okay, and that the print is clear enough.
Salaam alaikum (peace to you) Alan. I am well, reading the Bible. l’m learning things I like very much, and I wonder why it took me so long to realise that Christianity is such a great religion. I’m struck by these words of Jesus:
Blessed are the poor in spirit: for
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they that mourn: for
they shall be comforted.
Blessed are they that mourn: for
they shall be comforted.
Blessed are peacemakers: for
they shall be called the children of God…
I find comfort in these words, and I imagine you do as well. Even this message is a kind of reward…
Dear Atif, I am so glad to hear that you are enjoying the Bible. I believe that God has shown kindness to humanity from the beginning until now. And we pray that we will see God’s faithfulness and peace in Yemen soon. I hope it is a quiet peaceful night… Enjoy the weekend and give my warmest regards to your whole family!
Dear Alan, I hope you are well. The situation here in Yemen is still catastrophic – the government is unwilling or unable to give salaries to employees. Teachers are striking. Many people don’t have anything to eat; people are collapsing in the streets, at the mosque or at work. Many have illness because of the poor standard of living. Yemenis have been forgotten by this world. Why is it like this? I hope that Jesus may help us here in Yemen. We feel so helpless in this conflict.
In August, Alan sent a petition to the Government of Canada to help bring about a peaceful resolution and an influx of humanitarian aid to Yemen. You can sign it here. You can learn more about the war in Yemen at his website YestoYemen.ca.
*not his real name.