A new survey of Syrian towns by CNN suggests that much of northern Syria has come under the control of radical Islamist groups.
CNN claims that Islamist militants, led by a group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), are attempting to impose a strict Islamic ideology on Syrians across the region.
ISIS is said to have complete control of a number of towns in the region, including Keftin, Tal Rifat, Azaz, Ad Dana, Dar Ta Izzah, Binnish, Taqqa, Ma’arrat, Misrin, Jarablus and Al-Bab, while many others are said to contain a strong ISIS “presence”.
The effect of this on minority groups within the region, including Syria’s Christians, is a cause of growing concern.
Recently, ISIS was implicated in what has been described as the “biggest and most serious massacre” of Christians since the start of Syria’s civil war.
Archbishop Selwanos Boutros Alnemeh, Metropolitan of Homs and Hama, was talking to Fides about Sadad, a predominantly Christian town invaded by Islamist militias on October 21, before being re-taken by the Syrian army on October 31.
Stories were told of 45 civilians being murdered and dumped into mass graves.
“What happened in Sadad is the most serious and biggest massacre of Christians in Syria in the past two years and a half,” he said. “It is the largest massacre of Christians in Syria and the second in the Middle East after the one in the Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Iraq in 2010. We have shouted out to the world, but no-one has listened to us. Where is the Christian conscience? Where is human consciousness? Where are my brothers?”
Meanwhile, over in Raqqah, there were reports of Bibles and other Christian literature being burned in front of the Greek Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Annunciation and a cross ripped off the top of the Armenian Church in Tal Abyad and set alight.
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ISIS was blamed for these attacks, and also those on September 25, when the Armenian and Roman Catholic churches in Raqqah were desecrated.
Rami Abdul Rahman, from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said: “ISIS is the strongest group in Northern Syria – 100% – and anyone who tells you anything else is lying.”
All of this is leading to a growing sense of unease amongst Syria’s Christians, who are frightened by the continued violence and fearful of their position in the war as a tool of propaganda for President Bashar al-Assad. They have repeatedly said they do not want to take sides in the civil war.
The world has reacted strongly to the recent violence in the Christian-dominated village of Maaloula, and there is a growing appreciation amongst the Western world that rebel forces are saturated with the presence of militant Islamists.
Attacks on Christians and their churches evoke the sympathies of the Christian West and cause further suspicion to arise against those opposed to the Syrian regime.
Meanwhile, church leaders inside Syria remain strongly opposed to military intervention from the West and continue to call for a political solution through dialogue.
In an interview with Fides, Bishop Elias Sleiman, head of the Maronite Eparchy of Latakia, north-eastern Syria said that “a dialogue between the regime and moderate elements of the opposition” is essential, although “the big challenge is religious fanaticism [because] the moderate rebels and Islamists have begun fighting each other”.
Jean Kawak, a Syriac bishop from Damascus, told German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle that Christians feel “particularly threatened by particular radical Islamist groups… and moderate Muslims are also being threatened”.
He said reconciliation was “possible”, but that “you can’t make demands before you begin negotiations. A real dialogue has to take place without preconditions”.