By BosNewsLife Middle East Service
DAMASCUS, SYRIA (BosNewsLife)—Dozens of Christian families remained missing Saturday, August 8, after Islamic State militants seized their town in central Syria this week, the Syrian Orthodox Church and activists said.
Church sources and activists said contact with hundreds of people, many of them Christians, was lost after the group attacked the isolated oasis town of Qariyatain in Homs Province this week and routed the Syrian Army.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 230 people remained kidnapped or detained, some of whom were taken from the Dar Alyan monastery in Qaryatain.
The Syrian Orthodox Archdiocese for the region that includes Qariyatain put the figure even higher saying as many as 250 Christians are among those missing.
Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Observatory, confirmed that the Christians were “either kidnapped from checkpoints or raids or from churches.”
Initially the Islamic State group captured about 200 families, but some were later released, according to church sources. “We don’t know if they are alive or dead,” the church said.
Observers say towns like Qaryatain are key to the Islamic State group because they are along the Damascus-Homs Highway, a route used to ferry supplies and fighters.
Christians have often been singled out by the Islamic State group, BosNewsLife established. Militants are known to have beheaded kidnapped believers for refusing to abandon their faith in Christ and turn to Islam.
Islamic State has also killed members of religious minorities and Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to its self-declared “caliphate”. They also consider Christians as infidels.
The hardline militant group has been gaining ground in the desert areas east and south of Homs after it took over the ancient Roman city of Palmyra last May, said International Christian Concern (ICC), an advocacy group closely monitoring the situation.
The Syrian army has reportedly launched a large-scale counteroffensive to recapture the city, which lies in a region where some of Syria’s largest gas fields are located, but so far has made no significance advances. An army statement said its forces had targeted “terrorist outposts” in the area and killed scores of militants but did not confirm the capture of the town by the militants.
Local Christians say these abductions are the latest in a string of events targeting their community, one of the oldest Christian populations in the Middle East.
Two priests, Yacoub Murad and Monk Petros, who ran two monasteries in the area, went missing last May from the town of Qaryatain, Christians said.
At least 1,400 families reportedly fled the town to safer areas or took shelter in the government-controlled city of Homs.
Last February, the hardline jihadists abducted at least 250 Assyrian Christians, many of whom were children and women, during raids on villages in northeastern Syria.
That mass abduction coincided with an offensive in the same region by Kurdish forces backed by U.S.-led air strikes.
The fate of many of these civilians is unclear, as is that of a number of other priests who have gone missing and are believed to be held by the militants, according to Christian groups familiar with the situation.
ICC’s Advocacy Director Isaac Six told BosNewsLife that his group “unequivocally condemns this most recent abduction of Christians in Syria” which he added comes “on top of the kidnapping of 250 Christians last February and Father Yacoub and Monk Petros in May.”
Six said the latest incident should be a clear call for the international community to take action. “No one, even in time of war, should fear being kidnapped, held for ransom and possibly executed simply for their religious beliefs,” he said.
“We grieve for the families of those who have been abducted even as we call on the United States and other allies to step up efforts to protect Christians and other religious minorities from the barbaric actions of the Islamic State.”