Three years after a pastor moved his family from a war-torn town in Syria to the more serene city of Sweida, a deadly bombing there last week brought the violence home. Along with other Christian leaders in Syria, the pastor must decide whether to stay or flee.
Like members of his congregation, the pastor must constantly evaluate the risks of staying - with the added weight of having to choose between fleeing to protect his family and remaining to disciple the converts who make up most of his church. The car bombing on Friday (Sept. 11) killed a prominent Druze cleric and 25 others on the outskirts of Sweida, and retaliatory violence has reportedly killed another 21 people. In the initial attack, a second car bomb exploded near a hospital in a neighborhood where at least 50 injured people had been taken. No one has taken responsibility for the bombings.
Sweida Province will be coveted territory for the Islamic State (ISIS), said the pastor, whose name is withheld for security reasons.
"Sweida is a target for two reasons," he said. "First, religious reasons - the Druze are not Muslims. The Druze are very educated and modern. Druze women dress quite modernly. Secondly, Druze are considered to be loyal to the government, which makes Sweida a big target to ISIS."
ISIS militants can be found near Tadmore, less than 20 miles from Sweida, he said.
Unlike his congregation in Daraa, where most people came from Christian families, those in his Sweida church are former Sunni Muslims displaced from other areas and former Druze, a religion originating in the early 11th century as a gnostic mix of various philosophies and religions. The Sweida church's ministry has expanded to serving people displaced by the war.
Christians make up 2 percent of the Sweida population, and between them and the displaced, most would like to leave.
Sweida's Druze are preparing to defend their land against both rebels and government soldiers but have sympathizers on both sides. Residents report that the Druze have formed a militia to defend against rebels, but the Druze's initial support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad has reportedly waned. The Druze cleric who was killed, Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, had spoken out against Assad's regime. After the cleric's death, Druze protestors blamed the government, smashing a statue of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar Assad's deceased father, who previously ruled the country.
"The Druze are against the war; they do not agree with ISIS or the extremists' armed militias, so they don't want war," the pastor said. "However, they formed groups under the observation of the government to protect their land. So, they are willing to stand up against any attack on them if it happens."
Area Druze will try to defend their land, though they don't have heavy weapons to withstand an onslaught from ISIS, other rebel groups or government forces, he said.
Should ISIS advance on Sweida, Christians and especially their leaders would be among those sought in the group's push to establish a caliphate ruled by Sunni Islam, said the Middle East director of Christian Aid Mission.
"As ISIS pushes westward inside Syria, Christians are in the crosshairs," he said. "They're running out of places where they can safely flee."
When two Syrian Christian workers assisted by Christian Aid Mission were killed last year, the organization helped their wives and children to escape to Lebanon. Since then, four other workers with ministries that Christian Aid assists have been captured and killed. Many such indigenous missionaries feel called to risk their lives to remain in Syria, while others may wish to stay but cannot abide the possibility of family members being captured, raped, sold into sexual slavery, tortured or killed.
Seeking to help these Christian workers and their families to survive, Christian Aid has created an evacuation fund to have resources ready when indigenous missionaries need to move fast.
"Christian Aid Mission has had pleas from Christian workers in Syria to get their families out," the Middle East director said. "We have connections in countries adjacent to Syria who know how to get them out. An emergency fund has been established to rescue Christians before they're massacred. These funds will be sent to ministries who have the know-how to do the job."
The aim is not to remove the indigenous workers from their ministries, but to provide a way for them to continue, he said.
"We are not helping ministries to abandon Syria, but rather trusting that God has other plans for reaching the people of Syria, even the most radical terrorists, with the gospel," the director said. "Evacuated Syrian Christians can serve as a gospel witness among their people who are resettled in safe countries, or they can evangelize those still in Syria through Internet and media ministries. Almost all refugees seek to return to their homeland, so we could help preserve the indigenous witness from Syria to someday return, should the country become stable in the future."
Syrian Christians who remain in the country would find a way to reach their countrymen even if Syria is overrun by militants who vent their hatred of Jesus Christ, he added.
"God's Spirit is not bound by armies and hostile ideologies," he said.
The pastor in Sweida said villages bordering militia areas are already seeing random terrorist attacks in which innocent people are killed.
He is not eager to leave a fruitful ministry. Of the 90 people attending services in Sweida, 70 were raised in other religious faiths. Last year the pastor baptized 32 people - three from traditional churches (Orthodox and Catholic) and 29 from Islamic or Druze families.
Christian workers in Syria said they would not leave their ministries unless they have made provisions for the work to go forward.
"We will not allow the ministries to be destroyed," said the leader of a ministry Christian Aid assists in Syria. "We will make sure the ministry is still running."