Pastor caught between obligations to ministry and to family.
(Morning Star News) – His 6-year-old daughter still wakes up screaming, more than three years after the sounds and sights of war first gave her night terrors.
At least a few times each week, she wakes up with her muscles clenched, her head thrown back and her mouth open, screaming. Her father, a pastor in western Syria, had already taken his family and fled to another city in Syria after her terrors began, only to find that the war followed them there. Now they live in the quiet – for now – city of Sweida, but the night terrors still come.
“Doctors told us this is just from the fear,” he said. “We rely on the Lord.”
The pastor, whose name is withheld for security reasons, and his family typify the many Christians scrambling to survive in Syria. With an estimated 700,000 of Syria’s pre-war population of 1.4 million Christians having already fled, he too harbors the question, “Should I flee my country, and if so, when and where should I go?”
In a country where the Islamic State (IS) is carving out a caliphate with atrocities committed against those who don’t swear allegiance to it, it is a high-stakes question. In an unnamed village outside Aleppo, according to Christian Aid Mission, which assists indigenous Christian workers in their native countries, Islamic State militants on Aug. 28 crucified four Christians, including a 12-year-old boy, and beheaded eight others in separate executions. The boy was the son of a Syrian ministry team leader who had planted nine churches.
“In front of the team leader and relatives in the crowd, the Islamic extremists cut off the fingertips of the boy and severely beat him, telling his father they would stop the torture only if he, the father, returned to Islam,” Christian Aid reported. “When the team leader refused, relatives said, the ISIS militants also tortured and beat him and the two other ministry workers. The three men and the boy then met their deaths in crucifixion.”
They were killed for refusing to return to Islam after embracing Christianity, as were the other eight aid workers, including two women, according to Christian Aid. The eight were taken to a separate site in the village and asked if they would return to Islam. After refusing to renounce Christ, the women, ages 29 and 33, were raped before the crowd summoned to watch, and then all eight were beheaded.
They prayed as they knelt before the Islamic State militants, according to the ministry leader Christian Aid assists, who spoke with relatives and villagers while visiting the site.
“Villagers said some were praying in the name of Jesus, others said some were praying the Lord’s Prayer, and others said some of them lifted their heads to commend their spirits to Jesus,” the ministry director told Christian Aid. “One of the women looked up and seemed to be almost smiling as she said, ‘Jesus!’”
Their bodies were hung on crosses for display after they were killed, he added.
All Syrians are suffering in the war, but Christians are exposed to greater risks because of their outsider status within Syria, according to human rights activists. Even before war broke in 2011, the country was divided into numerous ethno-religious factions. Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Kurds all vied with each other and with the Alawites, a sect of Shia Islam of which President Bashar al-Assad is a member.
Almost all the sects have long-standing hostilities toward the Christians, but that aggression was held at bay in the name of public order for decades by the ruling Assad family. When myriad armed factions rose up against Assad, the Christians lost their protector and had to navigate old prejudices alone.
Ever-shifting alliances among groups intent on securing a beneficial position added to Christians’ problems. Militia groups, including the nascent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, now known as the Islamic State, attacked church buildings and Christians along with their property.
This new reality became evident soon after the pastor in Sweida moved back to his hometown of Kharaba; an Islamic militia group attacked Christians, threw them out of their homes and replaced them with 500 Muslim families.
“My family in Kharaba faced some attacks, and my house in Kharaba was taken by Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said. “They took the keys from me. All of us, my uncles’ families, my family, my sister’s family and my brother’s family faced attacks in our home village, Kharaba, which was at one time 100 percent Christian.”
After the attacks, 85 percent of the Christians fled Kharaba. Only 70 Christian families remained, and they are dominated by the militia and the Muslims they brought into the village. Even now, the pastor said, no one is allowed to open the church building in the town, ring its bell or hold worship services there.
The pastor, who continued leading a church group in Daraa, was also leading another church group in Kharaba. After eight months in Kharaba, he was asked to temporarily lead an additional church in Sweida. The pastor of that church told him he would return in five months.
“I kept doing that for a month, but the situation in Kharaba got worse, and I had to take my family and move to Sweida,” the pastor said. “The five months are finished, and now two and half years later, the pastor still hasn’t returned. He is not coming back and told me that later.”
The pastor moved to Sweida with his wife and three children, the youngest a toddler and the oldest in ninth grade. His traumatized middle daughter improved after they moved, but then he was faced with the hardships of living in a city isolated by war. The city is over-crowded. There are shortages of basic supplies, especially medical supplies, food and water. When staple items are available, they are extremely expensive. Finding a place to live is a problem. There are rolling blackouts, little gas for cars and scarce heating oil for homes.
In Sweida, about 25 miles north of Syria’s border with Jordan, most residents are Druze, who believe in a gnostic blend of several philosophies and religions. There is a small minority of Christians, mostly Greek Orthodox and Muslim Bedouins.
The Druze initially thought the Assad regime would protect them, but among them are elements both for and against Assad, and most recently they have formed armed groups under government eye to protect their land. They are willing to defend against attack from any party, but they don’t have sufficient weaponry.
Most of the militia groups around Sweida are from Jabhat al-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army or individual gangs from Bedouin tribes. IS hasn’t come to Sweida yet, but there have been reports of IS troops fighting in the province of Sweida, further filling the city with refugees. The pastor said that Sweida will be a target of the Islamic State: The militants consider the Druze loyal to the government, so IS will target them, especially as they are non-Muslims. Also, Druze women wear modern fashions, and the Druze generally are well educated and open to ideas that are anathema to Muslim extremists.
“We have some displaced people who fled from ISIS,” he said. “There are a lot of examples, but I can’t give names. We have some that were kidnapped, and others whose homes were taken from them. We have a family from Damascus who have no idea what happened to their home and farm and are living in a difficult situation.”
The pastor said that he doesn’t think there will be an attack to overrun the city anytime soon, but there have been car bombings.
“The general situation in Sweida is safe and OK, though there have been some individual cases such as kidnapping or individual crimes, but they have to do with the overall situation of the country,” he said. “For example, the last incident was a month and half ago, when a Catholic priest and a friend of mine named Tony al-Botros, was kidnapped and released about 10 or 15 days ago. He was kidnapped for about a month, and then a ransom was paid and that’s why he was released.”
When the civil war originated in 2011 out of a series of protests, Syrians waited, assuming that the conflict would be over in months. But as it became evident that the parties were in a stalemate and the brutality of the fighting increased exponentially, people started fleeing. When IS took over wide swaths of territory, a wave of refugees fled the country. More than 4 million of Syria’s pre-war population of 22.5 million people are estimated to have left.
First the rich left, and then the middle class. Now the people fleeing Syria are the most desperate, the destitute and the chronically ill. Faced with all the hardships, the pastor also has considered leaving. Because he carries the burden of ministering to three church groups in three different cities, though, he feels the weight of responsibility and won’t leave them.
But if God opened a door to leave and arrangements were made to keep the ministries running, he would likely leave, he said.
“In the past two months, because of all the difficulties we were going through, we have been thinking if there is a chance to leave Syria, we will,” he said. “The situation now doesn’t show any hope but hints to getting worse in the future in Sweida.”