Middle East

Islamic State: Fears grow for abducted Syrian Christians

Photo posted by al-Baraka division of Islamic State purportedly showing militants battling Kurdish and Christian militia near Tal Hamr, Hassakeh province, Syria (25 February 2015) Image copyright AP
Image caption It is not clear where the IS militants have taken the abducted Assyrians

There are fears that more members of an Assyrian Christian community in north-eastern Syria were abducted by Islamic State militants than at first thought.

Initial reports had put the number of missing at 90, but one activist said as many as 285 people had been seized on Monday in Hassakeh province.

Efforts to try to negotiate their release are reported to be under way.

Some 1,000 local Assyrian families are believed to have fled their homes in the wake of the abductions.

Kurdish and Christian militia are battling IS in the area, amid reports of churches and homes having been set ablaze.

Thousands of Christians in Syria have been forced from their homes by the threat from IS militants.

In areas under their control, Christians have been ordered to convert to Islam, pay jizya (a religious levy), or face death. IS militants in Libya also recently beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians.

Kurdish offensive

The Assyrians were seized by the militants as they swept into 12 villages along the southern bank of the Khabur river near the town of Tal Tamr before dawn on Monday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based activist group, said at least 90 people had been abducted, most of them women, children and the elderly.

However, the Syriac National Council of Syria put the figure as high as 150, while Afram Yakoub of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden said sources on the ground had told him that up to 285 people were missing, including 156 from the village of Tal Shamran and 90 from Tal al-Jazira.

"These were peaceful villages that had nothing to do with the battles," Nasir Haj Mahmoud, a Kurdish official in the YPG militia in north-eastern Syria, told the Reuters news agency.

There are conflicting reports as to where the families have been taken.

Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the Syriac Military Council - a Christian militia fighting alongside the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) - told the BBC that it believed the captives had been taken to Abdul Aziz mountain.

Osama Edward of the Sweden-based Assyrian Human Rights Network told the AFP news agency that the captives had been taken to the IS stronghold of Shaddadi, as did Syria's state news agency, Sana.

Another report said they were in Raqqa, 145km (90 miles) to the west, the de facto capital of the "caliphate" declared by IS last June.

Syria's Christians

  • Thought to have constituted about 30% of the population as recently as the 1920s
  • Long part of Syria's elite - founder of ruling Baath party was a Christian
  • Before the war made up some 10% of Syria's 22 million people
  • Up to 40,000 of those were Assyrians. They speak Syriac, a form of Aramaic, the language of Christ
  • Hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the fighting
  • Some have taken up arms to defend themselves against Islamists

Syria's beleaguered Christians

The BBC's Jonny Dymond in Beirut says the motive for the seizure of so many Assyrians is not yet clear. Our correspondent says it may be that the captives are to be used as part of a swap with the Kurdish forces.

Hundreds of Assyrians who were living in villages on the north bank of the Khabur river and elsewhere are reported to have fled following the attack to the largely Kurdish-controlled provincial capital of Hassakeh, to the south-east, and Qamishli, another city to the north-east.

Image copyright AP
Image caption IS has forced Christians living in its territory to either convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or face death

Mr Edward said two historic churches had been burned down in captured villages - one in Tal Hurmiz and the other in Qaber Shamiya. The Syrian Observatory also reported that a church in Tal Shamran had also been damaged.

Mr Gabriel said IS had moved a big force into the area and were trying to take control of Tal Tamr.

The Syriac Military Council had about 400 fighters in the area and at least four had been killed in clashes with the jihadists, he added. The YPG has deployed between 1,000 and 1,500 fighters.

The YPG is also continuing a major offensive launched on Sunday against IS some 100km (60 miles) to the east, near the border with Iraq - an area of vital importance to the jihadists.