By Gerald Butt
THOUSANDS of Christians in western areas of Syria have fled their homes after Islamic State (IS) advances that led to the disappearance last week of at least 230 people from the small and isolated oasis town of Qaryatain. Some reports put the figure higher. A Syrian bishop has warned that Christianity will disappear from the country if the violence continues.
The IS unit that entered Qaryatain overcame government forces, killing or wounding many of them. The jihadists then began rounding up civilians who were suspected of having collaborated with the government. A group of Christians sheltering in a church were among those detained. Communications with Qaryatain have been cut; so it is not possible to ascertain the exact numbers involved or their fate.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that some 230 people had been picked up, including about 60 Christians. But the Syrian Orthodox archdiocese for the region spoke of 250 Christians reported as missing. Again, it is not clear whether those detained are still in the town. Some Christian families from Aleppo had fled to Qaryatain over recent months to escape from the intense fighting there.
News of the round-up in Qaryatain prompted Christians to flee from other towns in western Syria, increasing the number of homeless families in the country. With no immediate end to the violence in sight, still more Christians will almost certainly become refugees, seeking homes elsewhere in the world.
The Chaldean Bishop of Aleppo, Mar Antoine Audo, told Vatican Radio that “if the war continues, as seems likely . . . all the Christians will leave Syria.” He believes that this was one of IS’s main objectives.
On Wednesday, however, it was reported that IS had released 22 of more than 150 Assyrian Christians abducted from villages in north-eastern Syria earlier this year. Fighters of IS overran more than a dozen villages inhabited by the ancient Christian minority near Hasaka, a north-eastern city mainly inhabited by Kurds.
The chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, Afram Yakoub, told Reuters that all the freed captives were elderly men and women. It is not known how many more Assyrians are being held by IS, but Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in the UK, said that it was more than 150.
While no specific plan is on the table to end the Syria in conflict, diplomatic initiatives appear to be under consideration. The United States’ Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently held talks while in Qatar with the foreign ministers of Russia and Saudi Arabia — and the latter two discussed Syria again this week in Moscow.
Iran, too, is putting forward proposals for a political deal, and consulted with the Syrian foreign minister.
The various parties involved differ in their views about what kind of solution is needed. Russia and Iran still back the Syrian regime, while Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies support the Syrian opposition, and insist that President Assad cannot be part of any final deal.
There are growing signs that the various governments with interests in Syria are now committed to a peaceful settlement rather than a military one, however, and thus may eventually be more willing to make compromises than in the past.
It has been suggested, for example, that Russia and Saudi Arabia might narrow their differences on the future of the Assad presidency by putting the matter to a referendum at a later stage.
But more compromises would be needed to reach that stage, possibly with Russia agreeing to end its military support for the Syrian regime, Iran securing the withdrawal of Lebanese Shia militiamen, and Riyadh ceasing to fund Syrian opposition groups.
All the parties could then unite in ousting IS, which threatens each of them. But much more talking will be needed before any complex agreement of this sort can be put together.