The Syrian government has claimed victory over the Islamic State in Qaryatain, a Syrian town with a notable Christian presence.

“Army units, backed by the Syrian and Russian Air Forces, restored security to Qaryatain and the farms surrounding it in south-eastern Homs,” the state-controlled Syrian News Agency said.

Islamic State’s apparent loss of Qaryatain comes in the wake of the government’s recapture last week of the ancient city of Palmyra, 60 miles to the east of Qaryatain.

Apart from its strategic position, Qaryatain – with under 50,000 inhabitants – was known for its historic 5th-Century Syriac monastery of Mor (St.) Elian the Hermit. Two of its priors had already been kidnapped by Islamists: in July 2013, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio (an Italian, still apparently being held), and his replacement, Syriac Catholic Jacques Murad, kidnapped on May 21 as Islamic State over-ran Palmyra.

Hundreds of Christians, both Syriac-Orthodox and Catholic, were taken captive – including at least 60 sheltering in the monastery – when Qaryatain fell to IS in August 2015. Islamic State bulldozed the monastery two weeks after it took control of it.

Two indications that Fr. Mourad was still alive came in short videos in late August. In one, filmed in a conference room in Qaryatain, Fr. Mourad was among some 50 Christian men ordered to sign a dhimma (contract) to avoid death. (In a second, broadcast on a Lebanese Christian network, Fr. Mourad spoke directly to the camera.)

After being forced to pay jizya (Islamic “protection money”) and pledging to submit to their captors’ demands of subservience to Muslim rule, many Qaryatain Christians were later released.

Fr. Mourad escaped on 10 October, 2015. According to Christian charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Mourad escaped with the help of a friend whose family had been helped by the priest’s programme of aid to the poor and disadvantaged.

As of 29 March, World Watch Monitor understands that IS forces continue to hold 179 Christians taken from Qaryatain.