BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants have captured dozens of Christian families after seizing a strategically located town in the central Syrian province of Homs, a monitor said on Friday.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 230 people were kidnapped or detained, including dozens of Christians, some of whom were taken from a church in Qaryatain, the town captured overnight after heavy fighting with the Syrian army.
Rami Abdulrahman, the head of the Observatory, said the Christians were “either kidnapped from checkpoints or raids or from churches.”
Among those seized were 45 women and 19 children, including 11 families, some of whom were on a militants’ wanted list, said the monitor that tracks the war’s violence through an extensive network of sources on the ground.
There were also hundreds of residents, Muslims and Christians, whose families have lost touch with them since the militants captured the area, according to Abdulrahman.
Qaryatain is near a road linking the ancient city of Palmyra to the Qalamoun mountains, along the border with Lebanon.
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.
The Syrian army has 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.
An Assyrian Christian group said these abductions were the latest in a string of events that targeted their community, one of the oldest Christian populations in the Middle East.
Two priests, Father Yacoub Murad and Monk Petros, who ran two monasteries in the area, went missing last May from the town of Qaryatain, according to the Assyrian Monitor for Human Rights, a Christian lobby group.
The group said at least 1,400 families had fled the town to safer areas or took shelter in the government-controlled city of Homs.
Islamic State has killed members of religious minorities and Sunni Muslims who do not swear allegiance to its self-declared “caliphate”. They also consider Christians as infidels.
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.